It’s the classic conundrum; can a sprinter succeed in a team geared towards a GC favourite? It’s not easy, even with nine-man teams, particularly on a Grand Tour like this year’s Tour de France with a first week full of so many pitfalls for the overall contenders.
Moreover, after last year’s disaster for Chris Froome on the cobbles stage and Vincenzo Nibali putting so much time into his rivals on the same stage, teams will be even more wary of protecting their leaders.
Stage two on the 2015 Tour was of that same vain. With crosswinds and bad weather predicted along the Dutch coast to Zeeland, teams knew there was an opportunity for gaps to appear. Making sure their leaders were in the front group was priority number one.
Peter Sagan, who admittedly is far more versatile and able to ride successfully without the full support of team than perhaps a pure sprinter could, looked to have been left to fend for himself as Tinkoff-Saxo protected Alberto Contador.
It was a stage that suited Sagan. A hard, Classics style slog through crosswinds and rain, which reduced the firepower within the front group. Both he and Contador had made it into the 24 rider strong leading pack, but while Etixx – Quick-Step were working for Mark Cavendish and Lotto-Soudal for André Greipel, it didn’t quite seem Tinkoff were doing the same for Sagan.
It was no more apparent than when the Slovakian champion punctured with 15km remaining. It was impressive. On a stage which saw many struggling to bridge gaps between groups, Sagan stopped, switched bikes and with no assistance from teammates, rode back to the rear of rampaging front group.
Sagan believes the effort cost him his win, despite only missing out by fractions on the line to Greipel.
“It was hard [to get back alone], but I am happy to be in first group,” he told Cycling Weekly after the finish.
“For sure the puncture cost me, but I am happy for my team, they did very good work. I’m happy for Alberto as well for finishing in the front group.”
Sagan was Tinkoff’s marquee signing for the year. A signing aimed at bringing them success in the Spring Classics, but now one that must still hold green jersey ambitions and the desire to find a first stage win since 2013, all while protecting a GC contender.
“He was helping Alberto, kept focus and played an important role,” said directeur sportif Steven de Jongh after the stage. “Then as we approached the finish line, he could try to go for a good result and he came very close to the win”.
But as Cavendish said about his role in the Sky team supporting Bradley Wiggins at the 2012 Tour, it almost feels like playing Wayne Rooney in defence.
The Cannondale team Sagan rode with last year never seemed to have numbers supporting Sagan towards the climax of stages. Whether that was through bad organisation or bad luck, he still made the best of the situation and took the green jersey without a stage win.
But this year he’d surely be hoping for more from a team full of such stars as Tinkoff have. He’ll be looking to the few flat stages during the middle of the first week for success, but as everyone saw in the Giro d’Italia, when Contador lost time on a sprint stage, there’s no rest for teams who hold overall aspirations.
Can he fulfil his own ambitions and work for Contador? Cavendish still took three stages while working for Wiggins in 2012, but his exit after one year is self-explanatory of the situation.
Sagan’s relatively poor form in the early part of the year prompted a number of reports about his pay, his relationship with the team and whether he’d remain there after this season.
But for a man just coming into form after a successful Tour of California and Tour de Suisse in the build up to the Tour, he won’t be happy leaving empty handed.
Sagan’s performance on Sunday however still shows he’s got what it takes to overcome the odds, even if he has to go it alone.
Tour de France stage two highlights