Stage 16: Bourg-de-Peage > Gap, 201km
Is there a case to be made that in certain kind of stages Peter Sagan is just too good to win? It sounds absurd, but in days like today, of which we have seen a handful this year (and last), Sagan has been too good a sprinter, too good a short-sharp climber and too good a descender to win. They attack him on the hill and then watch for him to do the chasing, refusing to tow him to the top only for him to ride away on the descent, or indeed into the final straight only for him to win the sprint.
Last year Sagan was at fault for doing all the casing until which point he had burnt himself out come the sprint. This year he has allowed some moves to go away and refused to be the one to do the chasing, willing to lose a stage here or there, in an attempt to send a message to the others that he won't always be that man.
That was the case again today. Sagan covered move after move except the one that ended up winning when Ruben Plaza burst clear. He let him go and looked to the others to take a turn, but none were willing to do so, risking their own chance of glory at the same time. Sagan eventually led the chase with a magnificent descent off the Col de Manse into Gap as he left each of his rivals behind, but it was too late to catch Plaza and he had to settle for his fifth 2nd place finish of this years Tour.
The issue therefore is that it continues to cost him wins, he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. The only real answer is for him to attack first, though given he's a good climber on these short hills, he isn't necessarily the best and that long attack isn't always possible.
As a result he's watching one of the most talented young riders in the sport, perhaps the finest all round talent in this years Tour, without a stage win but with five 2nd place finishes and 11 top 5 finishes to his name. It's a staggering level of consistency and it only makes you wonder whether, with a little luck here or there or a differently timed attack by a rival, he might be looking at five or six stage wins already.
He isn't however and he has to make do with forever being the most impressive bridesmaid in the peloton.
Peter Sagan's results in each of the first 16 stages (bold for top 5):
9: 4th (TTT)
Some have asked whether Sagan is indeed the Tours finest rider despite being so far down in the overall. It's debatable given that the Yellow jersey usually speaks for itself, though there is a case to be made that Sagan is the best in almost every other discipline bar time-trailing and mountain climbing and it is the later in which so much time is won and lost. If Sagan could climb the high mountains, he'd be the next Eddy Merckx!
Of course, Chris Froome might argue that even before they had reached the high mountains this year, he was still the man in Yellow, one place ahead of Sagan, and that if they were to go off the board and miss out the high mountains some year, Sagan wouldn't be allowed the freedom he has had the past three straight days to get into these breaks.
It's all speculative however, as the Tour is never going to ditch the mountains just to find out, and so Sagan will have to continue to make do with winning Green jersey after Green jersey to display his overall consistency while hoping his stage winning prowess improves. It's either that or he sacrifices some of the power that makes him so competitive in the bunch sprints and loses the weight that perhaps make him more a factor in the mountains. That is easier said than done but you wouldn't put it past someone with his kind of talent.
The only person I can compare him to is Sean Kelly the Irish all-rounder from the 1980s. Kelly was a sprinter who won four Green jersey titles, but who could also ride the classic races and handle himself on the hills. Of course, Kelly went on to win a Vuelta (in 1988) and finished as high as 4th in the 1985 Tour de France, but cycling was different in those days in that the contenders were not quite so stick thin as they are now and we're not purely specialised towards a Grand Tour per year only. Where there is a similarity is in their early career paths. Sean Kelly never won a stage in the Tour beyond his early years once his rivals figured out the level of his talent. By 25, the age of Peter Sagan now, Kelly had yet to win a monument -- something Sagan has starting to feel pressure for this year for not doing either -- though Kelly went on to win 9 between the age of 27 and 36.
Anyway, for what he is in the moment, he's spectacular to watch and nevermore so than on the that descent today. He looked more like a motorbike racers coming off the mountain at the Isle of Man TT as he breaked late, threw himself through the apex of each corner and accelerated out of it before getting back into the most aerodynamic of tuck position. It was, as Paul Sherwen said on the TV, 'poetry in motion'.
Where Sagan did win on the day was in the Green jersey contest. He picked up the intermediate sprint points by getting into the break for the third consecutive day and of course the points for finishing second in Gap. It increases his lead over his only true rival, André Greipel to 89 points. With a rest day tomorrow and four days in the high Alps, it leaves only Paris for Greipel to make a likely inroad and the gap is now too much. Baring him not finishing the Tour, Sagan will win his fourth consecutive points contest in four attempts.
Another winner on the day was Colombian Jarlison Pantano who finished third on the stage but some 18 minutes up on the peloton containing the Yellow jersey group. It moved Pantano up into the top 15 overall. That shrunken Yellow jersey group on the Col de Manse once again took turns attacking one another, but only Vincenzo Nibali got away and he came home 28 seconds ahead of the other contenders led by Alberto Contador.
One man who can consider himself a very lucky rider was Geraint Thomas who was bumped by Romain Bardet on a hairpin of the descent and was sent crashing over the barrier, head first into a lamppost and down a ditch. Miraculously he remounted and finished without shouting distance of the rest, maintaining his sixth place overall. And lucky too for Froome as earlier in the day he lost Peter Kennaugh to abandonment, and the idea of losing Thomas ahead of four hard days in the Alps may not have been worth thinking about. As it stands, Sky head into what is sure to be a challenging rest day for all the wrong reasons with eight men still intact and their leader still in command of the race.
|1. Plaza (LAM) in 4h 30' 10" |
2. Sagan (TSC) +30"
3. Pantano (IAM) +36"
4. Reschke (TGA) +40"
5. Jungels (TFR) +40"
6. Riblon (ALM) +40"
|1. Froome (SKY) in 64h 47' 16"|
2. Quintana (MOV) +3' 10"
3. Van Garderen (BMC) +3' 32"
4. Valverde (MOV) +4' 02"
5. Contador (TSC) +4' 23"
6. Thomas (SKY) +5' 32"