Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) added his name to the list of Tour of California winners on Sunday, winning by a margin that could be represented by the width of the race’s finish line painted on the road in Los Angeles.
Three seconds was all that separated Sagan and runner-up Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) at the end of the eight-day race on Sunday after the Slovakian national champion finished third behind final stage winner Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) to claim enough bonus seconds to reverse the two-second deficit to Alaphilippe at the beginning of the day.
But how did a ‘sprinter’ and a ‘classics specialist’, albeit one that is a three-time Tour de France points classification winner and five-time Tour of California points classification winner, take the overall victory in a race during which the two usually decisive days are an individual time trial and a mountain stage?
Although the result was unexpected, there are a number of factors that combined to give Sagan his first major stage-race victory, and one that could very well signal a change in his path as a professional rider.
Sagan is one of the most accomplished all-round riders in the current professional peloton. A bold statement? Not really. The proof has been steadily amassing itself over the past five seasons, during which he has taken wins in some of cycling’s biggest races, including four stage wins in the Tour de France and three green jerseys. He may have so far missed out on a big one-day Classics victory, but you can’t quibble that he’s been up there in the results: fourth in Milan-San Remo and fourth in the Tour of Flanders this year alone.
The 25-year-old from Žilina always comes across as nonchalant during interviews, seemingly shrugging off victories and failures with an equal air of indifference. You’re sometimes left with a feeling that if he really, really wanted a win, and applied himself, he could get the results. California was different. You could see the hunger for a win in the stage six time trial, and it was etched all over his face during the final, utterly excruciating kilometres up Mount Baldy on the race’s key stage on Saturday, where he collapsed to the floor after his effort. He really, really wanted to win the race that he says he loves.
Sagan may not be a fast finisher in the same league as Cavendish, but he’s certainly got the pace to beat the vast majority in a group finale. His sprint credentials are well established, but taking a victory in a week-long stage race with time bonuses, long climbs and at least one time trial is as much about finishing with consistency and minimising losses as it is making time gains. Sagan managed to put himself in the mix in every single one of the eight stages despite their varying distance and terrain, finishing second, second, second, first, third, first, sixth and third. A remarkable run.
3. Time trial ability
Hilly races ending in a reduced bunch finish have traditionally been marked out as Sagan territory. Sure enough, Sagan won just such a day on stage six of the Tour of California. But when the race organiser took the decision to relocate the race’s time trial stage from Big Bear Lake to Santa Clarita due to forecast snow and reduce its length from 24.2km to 10.6km, Sagan must have been rubbing his hands together: just his distance.
Although Sagan’s time trial wins are few and far between, there have been several occasions when he has shown his true ability against the clock. At the start of the 2012 Tour de Suisse, Sagan put in a strong effort in the opening 7.3km time trial to position himself well for the coming sprint stages. He did better than that: winning the time trial and coming home four seconds quicker than time trial machine Fabian Cancellara. Sagan’s innate technical ability on a bike, coupled with the power output that sees him winning sprints are ideal for prologues and short time trials.
To take on the spring classics, in particular Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, you need to be able to tackle climbs and still be fresh to contest the finish. Whilst those two races feature a cumulatively large amount of ascending, the ‘queen’ stage of the Tour of California is decided on a long final climb to Mount Baldy. Sagan knew that he would have to minimise his losses to GC rival and better climber Julian Alaphilippe on the stage, and put in perhaps the most concerted effort of his entire professional cycling career to ensure the outcome.
Alaphilippe won the stage and took the race lead at the end of the day, but Sagan had ridden himself to bits to place sixth and lose just 47 seconds. Sagan virtually collapsed on the line, wretching as he tried to catch his breath. “I believed that I could do it,” he said later. “I don’t know if it was the hardest effort that I’ve ever done, but it was tough. It was just 129km, while the Classics for instance are much longer and drain your energy slowly. But yes… I was in pain, almost throwing up.”
5. Lack of general classification contenders
It may be uncharitable, but we cannot ignore the lack of clear general classification contenders going into the 2015 Tour of California. The pre-race favourite, Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) was an early casualty, pulling out of the first stage with illness and allergies. Last year’s winner, Bradley Wiggins, was also absent having left Team Sky. And the likes of previous high finishers Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Rohan Dennis (BMC) and Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin) were elsewhere.
Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) started and was a winner in 2012, but he’s still on the comeback trail after taking a break last season with a heart condition. Sky’s Sergio Henao, too, is still finding his form this year. Sagan therefore benefitted from the lack of top-level climbers in peak form in the race but, as they say, you can only beat who’s there and that does nothing to diminish the nature in which Sagan attacked the race head-on.
The war of words between outspoken Tinkoff-Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkov and Peter Sagan has been brewing since Sagan came away from the classics empty-handed. Sagan underwent a big money move from his former Cannondale team to Tinkoff for 2015, with the expectation of big results to match the pay packet. Prior to the start of the Tour of California, Sagan had scored just one victory: a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico. Not good enough, said Tinkov, and the pressure was on.
Tinkov and former team manager Bjarne Riis have already ‘parted ways’ this season, and the fall-out from that high-profile split must have been felt throughout the squad. Tinkov is also reportedly looking into the legality of cutting riders’ wages if they fail to perform, putting financial pressure to get results that is rarely seen in modern professional cycling, and one that many see as unhealthy.