Sunday, May 17, 2015

California crux?

Cavendish for the win. Sagan for the win. Alaphilippe for the aspirin. Photo Credit: Some computer controlled camera
On any other Sunday, the big story of this photo would be Mark Cavendish winning easily and coasting to the line with a beautifully casual arms wide out pose. It would be about how he utterly dominated the green jersey competition of the 10th edition of the Tour of California, winning four of the 8 overall stages and all of the flat sprints. It might have even been a little bit about how his victories were slightly hollow due to the true sprint class of the pro peloton being scattered about the globe in a number of other races. But this wasn't any other Sunday and Cav, despite the truly impressive heroics of his past week, will go down as merely a footnote in what was the real story of America's (arguably) best pro road cycling race - Peter Sagan

The week started auspiciously for the affable Slovakian. A hard fought second place to Cavendish in stage one should have been a positive beginning for Sagan especially considering he is not a pure sprinter. However; any positivity to be taken from that finish was shattered when his boss, Mr. Olev Tinkoff (the namesake of the Tinkoff-Saxo team that employs young Peter) decided to take to twitter to light a fire under his star rider's prodigious glutes by calling him out for not winning. Tinkoff was taken to task by much of pro cycling's fandom (many devout Saganites no doubt) who politely and not so politely told him where he might want to put his head and what types of things he might want to put in his mouth. Some said he was merely trying to spark Sagan. Whether he was or not something definitely clicked for the kid and he went on a tear that is not only the story of the cycling year so far, but might just be the moment that the trajectory of everybody's favorite all-arounder's career took a significant turn. 

It has always been my opinion that Peter Sagan was meant to be more than just the best all around rider, or rouleur, or puncheur or green jersey challenger, or the replacement for Jens Voigt as America's favorite european cyclist. I have always felt that with just a small change in disposition and training he could add a bit more climbing ability to balance out his other prolific talents and could be a force to reckon with on some of the premier mid length stage races such as Paris-Nice, Catalunya, Pais Vasco, Romandie et al. Sure the Dauphiné and Suisse tours might be out of reach because of the amount and grade of climbing and I don't seriously see him winning any of the grand tours, but outside of that I think anything is within his reach. After today's amazing finish at the TOC, maybe Sagan feels the same.

Sagan dry heaving after a superhuman effort on the face of Mt. those beautiful shoes! - 
Today's excitement doesn't happen without Sagan's incredible effort in yesterday's stage 7 however. On the winding road up the face of Mt. Baldy Sagan put in an effort that few would have believed possible when he clawed his way up the queen stage of this years race. Not only competing with, but actually defeating some of the best pure climbers in the world to finish 5th at the summit. As expected he gave up the leaders jersey but completely unexpected was the finishing sprint he mustered to close the gap between himself and French phenom Julien Alaphilippe to only a miniscule 2 seconds. That meant with 2 opportunities for time bonuses up for grabs on today's 8th and final stage from Downtown L.A. to the 10 lap finish at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena that he was now arguably the favorite to win his first UCI elite level tour.

As is par for the course with the young Slovakian he made it as exciting and nail biting for his fans as it possibly could have been. With the aforementioned Cavendish working hard at the front to steal bonus seconds from Sagan for his teammate Alaphilippe, it would come down to the finishing sprint on the 10th lap around the iconic stadium before anyone would know who was going to finish on the top step of the podium. Multiple breaks on the circuit kept the pressure on Tinkoff-Saxo to keep Sagan simultaneously in the race and out of trouble. Whether the French neo-pro or Sagan would finish first was not in question, we all knew that Julien would have nothing for Peter in the sprint although he gamely hung tough on the Tinkoff-Saxo rider's wheel for as long as possible. No, the real question was would Sagan finish third or better to gain the needed seconds to wrestle away the top spot of the race for himself. Cavendish and Dutchman Wouter Wippert left no doubt about first and second place and Amercian Tyler Farrar put in a huge effort for his MTB-Qhubeka team and nearly wrote a completely different story that Julien Alaphilippe would have no doubt preferred.

Podium proven. Both Sagan and Alaphilippe showed glimpses of what the future could hold. Henao had to be a little disappointed with his Baldy performance, but can't be too upset about a podium in California. Photo Credit: Some guy with a camera who's name I don't know. 
At the end of the day and the end of the race it was just a centimeter or two that fit multiple fortunes within their length. The reality is that Sagan put on a show for the ages and made the American cycling fans even crazier than they already were for him. He pipped Farrar with a textbook throw of his bars at the perfect time to capture the final spot on the podium and the needed seconds to secure the overall victory. He also helped his boss shove his foot firmly and deeply in his mouth. It's a taste I'm sure the Russian will gladly endure and hopefully he'll take to twitter and interviews with as much praise for his star rider as he did with criticism earlier in the week.

A hearty cheapeau to Etixx Quickstep riders Alaphilippe and Cavendish for amazing performances in their own right. On any other Sunday it would have been quite a celebration for the Belgian team...

...but to day was not any other Sunday. 

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