I’ve told part of this story before, but it’s worth telling again, now that Peter Sagan has displayed his staggering talent on cycling’s biggest stage. The story comes from May 2010, when I was one of the few non-Swiss journalists reporting Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie. We were in Porrentruy, where the prologue time trial started in the medieval town’s cobbled streets before heading out on a 4.3-kilometer loop.
It was a bright, sun-filled evening, with the race being watched by crowds of enthusiastic spectators, many of whom had gathered on a sharp downhill curve that led into the short finishing straight. After walking the first part of the course while the early starters headed out into a strong wind, I stationed myself 100 meters beyond the finish line. This is where the riders slowed and then made a U-turn before slowly pedaling back to their team buses.
I could see the big TV screen from where I stood and so could watch the riders making that last turn. The fastest time was still the 5:17 set by Italian TT specialist Marco Pinotti when the latter racers came into the finish. No one knew much about Sagan, the 20-year-old Slovak, except for his winning two stages of Paris-Nice earlier in that rookie year. His pro debut, at age 19, came a few months earlier at Australia’s Tour Down Under, where he impressed many with his strength in a breakaway during the opening criterium.
So we knew from that he was pretty strong in breakaways, and from Paris-Nice we knew that he could accelerate on uphill finishes and wasn’t bothered by cold, wet conditions. Colleagues said Sagan was easy going and, obviously, a talented young cyclist. But that Tour de Romandie revealed different sides to his character.
As he neared the prologue finish, Sagan was one of the very few riders to keep pedaling around the fast, final turn. In fact, a couple of riders crashed on that full-speed bend, and I didn’t see any others pedal around it like Sagan during the period I was watching. Anyway, it was clear that the Liquigas-Cannondale phenom was trying to win that prologue. He was going so fast that he didn’t get a chance to look back and see the digital clock above the line after he finished, so when he pedaled back toward me, he asked what time he’d done.
I had to tell Sagan he was one second slower than Pinotti—who did win the stage. I wasn’t expecting that mild-mannered young man’s reaction. He used one of the few English words he knew at the time: “Fuck!” It was clear from the brief flash of anger in his eyes that he had an extreme winning temperament—and that’s what he showed on Sunday afternoon in Seraing to take the opening road stage of the 99th Tour de France.
The two stage wins he took at the 2010 Paris-Nice were the result of late attacks. The first win came by out-speeding two others in the break, Joaquim Rodriguez and Nicolas Roche, The other came in a solo move. So the outcome of the opening road stage at Romandie, the day after the prologue, came as quite a shock. At the end of a very hilly 175 kilometers, a peloton of some 60 riders was left to contest the completely flat finish. It was a long, drawn-out drag race between the first 10, including pure sprinters Robbie Hunter and Ben Swift, but it was the fired-up Sagan, unhappy to have lost the prologue, who held on to take the win.
Since that day, Sagan has won 30 more races, mostly in bunch sprints. But he’s also won a time trial, beating Fabian Cancellara at the Tour de Suisse’s hilly prologue in June, and also a couple of stage races that included mountain stages: last year’s Tour of Sardinia and Tour of Poland. The range of his results at such a young age (he’s still only 22!) shows that Sagan is likely to develop into a rider such as the Italian legend Giuseppe Saronni, who won a world title as well as the Giro d’Italia—or even a modern Eddy Merckx.
For now, Sagan is having fun. He may have messed up his Tour debut on Saturday in the Liège prologue, but the facility with which he marked Cancellara when the race leader counterattacked at the most critical point in the climb to the finish of Stage 1 proved once more that Sagan is not only strong but also extremely smart.
Many were surprised that the hefty Cancellara was right at the front on the double-digit part of the Seraing hill’s gradient. But he said he felt obliged to his RadioShack-Nissan teammates—notably Yaroslav Popovych, Jens Voigt and Haimar Zubeldia—who had pulled the peloton for the best part of the 196 kilometers that preceded the final climb. “I said to myself that attacking is the best defense,” Cancellara later said. “So I rode steady when [Sylvain] Chavanel and [Michael] Albasini attacked, and when we reached the cobbles section I said, that’s my thing.”
Just as Omega Pharma’s Chavanel and Orica-GreenEdge’s Albasini were reeled in, and with the grade slightly easing, Cancellara accelerated hard on the left side of the street in his familiar powerful style. Sagan, who’d been calmly following the pace set by BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans, saw the man in the yellow jersey make his move on the opposite side of the road, sprinted across to him and clamped himself to Cancellara’s wheel. And Sagan refused to go through to the front when the Swiss ushered him through to help share the pace-making.
Instead, Sagan knew that Cancellara would not let the 45-strong group catch them; and the Slovak champion was not even worried when Team Sky’s Eddy Boasson Hagen bridged across to them. He knew that the Norwegian wouldn’t have any gas left to contest the final sprint. And he was right.
No curse words from Peter the Great this time. In two years, he has developed from that feisty kid wanting to win at all costs into a mature, confident young man—who still wants to win at all costs!
John will be previewing stage 2 later in the day.