Sagan making Tour de France look easy; Wiggins in comfortable place
Peter Sagan has won two of three stages raced so far in his first Tour de France
Bradley Wiggins is sitting in second; under no pressure to defend yellow jersey
Mark Cavendish appears to be holding back as Team Sky focuses on Wiggins
Really, Peter Sagan? Is it that easy?
Today's Stage 3 into Boulogne-sur-Mer on the English Channel ended in a subtly sadistic fashion, with four short, sharp, kick-in-the-teeth climbs squished into the final 30 kilometers. The last of those "nasty little brutes" (coinage: NBC's Paul Sherwen) commenced 700 meters from the finish line, and opened a can of anarchy:
First, there was Sylvain Chavanel, who was desperately (and vainly) trying to hold onto his five-second lead. Then there was Fabian Cancellara, dubbed with the nickname Spartacus, who was not content with just the race leader's yellow jersey and was also digging for the stage win. But then, with a mighty surge halfway up the hill, Michael Albasini took the lead, looking like he might earn his first-ever Tour de France stage victory.
Now, enter Peter Sagan, the 22-year-old Slovakian of team Liquigas-Cannondale. Despite riding in his first Tour de France, Sagan (pronounced Suh-GAHN) has not displayed a rookie's nerves or reticence; in fact, he won the first stage. Sagan leaned into a turn 300 meters from today's finish and found a gear which the rest of the world's best riders do not own. So comfortable was his margin of victory over Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen that Sagan had time sit up and pump his arms in a way he later said was inspired by Forrest Gump.
When Sagan won five of the Tour of California's eight stages last May, I wondered if his dominance might have been the result of a slightly shallow field. Now, the kid has won twice in three days on the biggest stage in his sport. One of the takeaways from the Tour's first four days is that Sagan is a big fish in a big pond.
With its six pesky ascents, plus the inevitable crosswinds and headwinds coming off the Channel, Stage 3 was supposed to generate a bit of mayhem, to split the peloton and re-shuffle the standings.
Thomas Voeckler, the plucky Frenchman who spent ten days in yellow last year, was the biggest name in a hapless group that lost seven-plus minutes behind a crash -- a cluster of riders that included, it seemed, half the Garmin-Sharp squad (but not its GC favorite, Ryder Hesjedal).
While the standings among legitimate contenders were largely unchanged, Wiggins suffered a notable loss when his teammate, Konstantin Sivtsov, crashed hard and had to abandon the race. You can't just be very good to win the Tour -- you also have to be a little lucky. The loss of Sivstov, an all-around rider and climbing talent who would have aided Wiggins in the high mountains, could end up being very expensive for Sky.
He won't be missed over the next three stages, which are all relatively flat and designed for the sprinters, as NBC's Phil Liggett puts it, "to come out and play."
Checking out the profile of tomorrow's stage into Rouen, we see another spikey little climb seven miles from the finish. While that ascent might be harsh enough to shed some of the sprinters, look for Sagan in the end. Again.
Bradley Wiggins is exactly where he needs to be. While finishing last Saturday's prologue seven seconds behind Cancellera, the skinny Brit riding for Team Sky put time into all of his rivals in the general classification. While Sky's team management and sponsors would have loved to see their man in yellow, it's a barely disguised blessing that the team has been spared of the responsibility of protecting the jersey early on in the Tour. For now, they can now avoid riding at the front with noses in the wind, chasing breakaways and otherwise expending vast amounts of energy until their man does take the lead (possibly after next Monday's 41.5 km time trial into Besancon).
Also, Wiggins well knows the added obligations endured by the race leader: the jersey presentations, the air-kisses with podium girls, the drug testing, the time spent being debriefed by his friends in the press corps. "This is why I didn't want the jersey," he explained after taking the lead in the first stage of last month's Dauphine. "I got to deal with this shit every day."
Mark Cavendish has been sandbagging. Wiggins' teammate, the elite sprinter and current world champion Mark Cavendish, came into the Tour talking about his diminished expectations. He would not be the beneficiary of a sprinter's train, which he had enjoyed in his previous seasons with now-disbanded Columbia-High Road. Team Sky would be riding for Wiggins as he goes for the win -- not to set Cavendish up for sprint finishes. Besides, Cavendish dropped nine pounds in preparation to haul his sprinter's backside over Box Hill nine times during the Olympic road race, which is his primary goal this season. With that weight, he suggested, Cavendish lost some of his pure strength -- a few MPH off his world-class burst.
With a bunch sprint boiling on the run-in to Tournai in Stage 2, Cavendish didn't have a proper train (although he got a generous pull from teammate Bernard Eisel to within half-kilometer of the line). At that point, he was on his own, and he actually seemed quite comfortable. Cavendish's post-race recollection of the sprint's final moments gives a glimpse of the split-second decisions he's extremely good at making:
"Coming into the final I jumped on [Oscar] Freire, I knew he'd moved up with a kilometer to go. Then [Daryl] Impey went on the right, Gossy [Matt Goss] didn't react in time, [which] left a gap; as he was coming I just clipped on Impey's wheel, Gossy on my wheel then Impey went up on the outside, then [Greg] Henderson went on the left with [Cavendish archrival Andre] Greipel so I just bumped over and onto Greipel's wheel. I left a bit too late, I went with 200 to go. If I'd gone 50 meters earlier I would've had him comfortable."
As it was he won by less than a bike length. But he won, reminding us that, when necessary, Cavendish can ham-and-egg it with the best of them. No train, no problem: Cavendish is as opportunistic as he is fast.
But he is, in the end, a sprinter: those stinging ascents of the Boulonaisse Hills dislodged him and the rest of his fast-twitch ilk from the front group today, clearing the way for more Sagan heroics.