Did Peter Sagan lose stage 11 of the 2014 Tour de France, or did Tony Gallopin win it? The immediate reaction might be a bit of both – after all, both were in a group of four a safe distance off the front of the peloton as they raced into the final three kilometres of Oyonnax. You might have looked at the quartet: Gallopin, Sagan, Michael Rogers and Michal Kwiatkowski, and liked Sagan’s odds. In a flat sprint, he’d beat the other three nine out of 10 times, maybe 10.
But being the strongest rider doesn’t necessarily win bike races. For Sagan, it’s actually becoming a great excuse for not winning them. Sagan’s three companions liked the idea of sprinting against him so little that they took turns in attacking him.
At 3.2 kilometres to go, Kwiatkowski attacked. Sagan chased.
500 metres later, Gallopin attacked and Sagan chased again. This time was different, however. Rogers came through, then he slowed, and looked at Sagan, while the Slovak looked back at him. In the few seconds this freewheeling interaction took, they lost the stage, and the only question was whether the fast-closing peloton, still a couple of hundred metres or so behind, would catch Gallopin.
The answer was no, but not by much. A snarling line of climber-sprinters, John Degenkolb, Matteo Trentin, Daniele Bennati and Simon Gerrans, were so close to Gallopin as he won that they were hardly out of focus in the finish line pictures. Sagan, for his part, was ninth. The points classification will be his, but his extraordinary consistency – eight top 10s in 11 stages – is starting to look like a handicap, a tactical instruction written on 21 morning team meeting Powerpoint presentations and highlighted in green: don’t take Sagan to the finish.
In fairness to Sagan, he rode a more or less flawless stage. His Cannondale team did a lot of the work through the day, helped by an unequal contribution from Orica. When the first break was brought back and another more dangerous escape went, in the hills towards the end of the stage, Cannondale still chased. On two descents, the peloton split, and each time Sagan was in front. The second time was to chase Gallopin, along with Rogers and Kwiatkowski.
If he’d sat back in the peloton, Gallopin, Rogers and Kwiatkowski would have contested the stage between them (they would have stayed away – Gallopin was able to hold the bunch off on his own, so a three-man break would not have been caught, unless they’d really started turning on each other). If he’d carried on chasing attacks, he’d have tired himself out too much for the sprint. His only chance was a coherent four-up sprint, which obviously wasn’t going to happen. The only question was, which of his three companions’ attacks would Sagan let go?
In the less controlled, more organic Tours of yesteryear, transition stages like this might have seen a large break go up the road and gain a dozen minutes. But with just under half of the stages complete, and three quarters of the teams still waiting for a stage win, some might have looked at today’s route and identified it as one to be controlled, rather than left to chance.
In fact, it was mainly Cannondale who thought that, although they had the willing co-operation of Orica. In Peter Sagan and Simon Gerrans respectively, these two teams had sprinters who could get over the hills of the final 50 kilometres. It’s conservative tactically to smother the race, but as the Tour gains in importance, it becomes inevitable that fewer breaks succeed.
Cannondale allowed a three-man breakaway – Martin Elmiger (IAM), Cyril Lemoine (Cofidis) and Anthony Delaplace (Bretagne) to gain a lead of five minutes, but brought them slowly back as the stage approached the first climb, the third-category Cote de Rogna. On the climb, Lemoine and Delaplace went backwards, but their places were taken by Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff), Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Jan Bakelandts (Omega Pharma) and Jesus Herrada (Movistar), who joined Elmiger about a minute in front of the dwindling yellow jersey group for a short-lived alliance.
Ominously for Sagan, Cannondale’s presence at the front of the peloton was reduced to only three domestiques with 30 kilometres to ride. 10 kilometres later, with Roche having attacked alone up and over the final categorised climb, the Cote d’Echallon, Sagan had one rider left: Alessandro De Marchi. Roche was brought to heel, but it meant that Cannondale had run out of domestiques with one more small climb, and long, fast descent to go.
The next attack finally broke Cannondale’s hold on the race. Gallopin surged on the final bit of uphill and built a 15-second lead on the descent. Sagan, isolated, chased himself, bringing Kwiatkowski and Rogers with him and bridging to Gallopin coming into Oyonnax.
He’d almost done enough. His team controlled the race, then he followed the final attacks when the peloton was breaking to pieces under the pressure. And still, no stage win for Peter Sagan.
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