Stage one analysis – Sagan holds his nerve

Slovakian sensation executes his debut Tour win with clinical precision

Words by Richard Moore in Liège

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Sunday July 1, 2012

The first stage of the Tour de France conjured memories of last year’s first stage, and also of this year’s Milan-San Remo.

Like last year, when there was no prologue, the first road stage had an uphill finish and a red-hot favourite in Philippe Gilbert. The expectation only made the execution more impressive. Everybody knew Gilbert would attack, but when he did, nobody could respond.

Likewise, Peter Sagan was many people’s favourite for this opening stage, which set out from Liège to complete a lumpy loop before finishing back in Seraing, atop the Côte de Seraing. To win in such circumstances requires not only the ability – which must be there by virtue of the favourite tag – but also steely nerves and a cool head.

Which brings us back to this year’s Milan-San Remo. There, Fabian Cancellara was the strongest but could not shake off Simon Gerrans, nor encourage the wily and experienced Australian to come through and help him.

Here at the Tour, it was déjà vu – almost. The yellow jersey-wearing Swiss, with Sagan glued to his wheel and Edvald Boasson Hagen bridging the gap up to this leading pair, tried it again, waving Sagan through to do his turn at the front.

Boasson Hagen could be excused – the effort he made to catch Cancellara and Sagan all but ruled him out of contesting the finish. Sagan had no such excuse. Well, he had one – he wanted to win.

Indeed, the only circumstances that might have conspired to encourage Sagan to go through and give Cancellara a breather were if the peloton were closing (they weren’t) or if he was feeling charitable (he wasn’t).

Cancellara’s back wheel was the only place to be; Sagan could sit there and allow his mind to wander to planning the victory celebration.

But knowing that and doing it are two different things. The urge, especially in a thrusting young rider like Sagan, is surely not to sit back but to drive forward. The patient approach is anathema. Plus, this is the Tour de France, the biggest bike race in the world, and the closing kilometres of the stage, after two crashes, with 23km and 22km to go, had been anxious and nervy.

In the end, as Sagan, after waiting and waiting and waiting, pounced for the win with the clinical precision and ruthlessness of a hired assassin, what was most impressive was his cool head. This was the revelation. We knew all about his strength, his fast finish and his bike-handling ability; now we know he can be calm, calculating and cunning. Finally, he demonstrated that he had put that time spent resting behind Cancellara to good use with a celebration as full of panache as his win, resting his hands on his hips to show that it had been easy, then flexing his biceps to show that, yes, he is strong.

But we knew that, Peter.

Behind Sagan, most riders crossed the line with mouths open and gulping. The carnage had come late, because it had, for the most part, been a controlled stage, with Cancellara’s RadioShack-Nissan on the front, maintaining a steady tempo behind the six-man break.

There was a flurry of interest at the intermediate sprint, with most of the points mopped up by the break, but the sprinters fighting for the remaining scraps. Matt Goss drew first blood here, with Mark Cavendish behind him, then Andre Greipel and Mark Renshaw: four High Road alumni proving that they are likely to dominate the sprints as their old team did, even if they are now in different outfits.

All was relatively calm until that first crash, with 23 kilometres remaining, apparently caused by a photographer who stepped out into the road and clipped a Movistar rider. Michael Rogers of Team Sky was one of the fallers, though he was unhurt and rejoined the bunch. But a kilometre later there was another tumble, with Luis Leon Sanchez and local boy Maxime Monfort among the fallers.

The crashes sent ripples of panic through the peloton. Unlike recent years, when High Road might have imposed some order by taking responsibility, no team seemed quite as confident. In fact, it was about as organised as my suitcase, with the wide roads only adding to the sense of anarchy.

Finally two teams took control, Lotto-Belisol and then Orica-GreenEdge, but it wasn’t clear who Lotto were working for – if Greipel then they obviously hadn’t studied the uphill finish – and Orica were overwhelmed when the road began to rise and first Sylvain Chavanel attacked, then Cancellara countered, dragging Sagan with him.

Behind them, Gilbert was best of the rest, but a pale shadow of the Sagan-like killer he was 12 months ago. A year can seem a very long time.

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