It is an old cycling saw that the rainbow jersey of world road race champion carries a curse which condemns its wearers to mediocrity or misfortune in the season after they win the gold medal.
Having already landed the Ghent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders Classics this spring, Sagan took full advantage of a technical finale and a steep hill to the finish by the Glacerie racecourse to score the fifth Tour stage win of his career, snatching the yellow jersey from Mark Cavendish into the bargain.
The day before at Utah Beach he had found himself on the front too early with no option but to launch the sprint, with Cavendish lurking in his slipstream; here he had ample shelter, initially from his team-mate Roman Kreuziger, who made the pace up the final climb, and then from the young Frenchman Julien Alaphilippe; he is riding his first Tour and his enthusiasm got the better of him in the final metres, when he sprang briefly clear, only for Sagan to latch on to his wheel before leaving him well behind like a cat playing with a compliant mouse. At La Glacerie the Slovak’s nerves were appropriately ice cold.
The steepness and length of the climb meant that Cavendish had not expected to challenge here and the Manxman slipped out of the back of a reduced peloton with just over two kilometres remaining, having spent much of his day in yellow close to the head of affairs with his Dimension Data team-mates on roads which resembled those of his native Isle of Man: hilly, green-verged, winding and misty, with a soupçon of sea-salt in the air. He now lies 75th overall at 1min 45sec but day’s run south to Angers should suit him.
This was a finish suited to riders with the unique blend of climbing and sprinting ability which is one of Sagan’s variety of calling cards, although he also boasts a man-bun, a penchant for bizarre victory salutes and such immense bike-handling skill that he plans to ride the mountain bike race at the Rio Olympic Games. In a world where most professional athletes seem micro-managed to the nth degree he comes across as so endearingly bonkers that it must be either completely natural or a triumph of stealth marketing.
The bends past the port of Cherbourg and the two ascents in the final 10 kilometres were similar to the run-in to Boulogne where Sagan took his first Tour stage win in 2012, which made this a classic example of a stage where the Tour would not be won but could easily be lost. Any incident would be costly, which explained Chris Froome’s constant presence in the first half-dozen of the peloton, with Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard protecting him.
Froome finished 10th behind Sagan, moving up to fourth overall, but there were losers: Alberto Contador’s bid for a third Tour win has to be in doubt after a second crash, while Richie Porte dropped 1min 59sec after puncturing at the worst possible moment, with five kilometres to go, and finishing with Cavendish. His Tour is not over but he faces an uphill struggle. While Nairo Quintana finished with Froome, as did the Italian Fabio Aru, France’s Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil, and Bury’s Adam Yates, the French favourite Thibaut Pinot dropped 11sec on Froome, as did Vincenzo Nibali.
It is five years since a reigning world champion pulled on the maillot jaune – the last being Thor Hushovd in 2011 – and Sagan crossed the line convinced this was not going to be the time. He believed he had finished third, which was understandable, as the last survivors of the day-long escape were caught close to the finish with the battle for position before the climb at its height.
The Belgian Jesper Stuyven held out until well into the final kilometre, cresting the top of La Glacerie 20 metres or so ahead of Sagan and company, staying in front until about 500 metres to go. It is a measure of the rate at which the peloton devoured the 3.2 uphill kilometres to the finish that at the foot of the climb, his lead was well over a minute, with glory seemingly assured.
Like Cavendish, Sagan has dominated the green jersey in the past – he has won the points standings for the last four years – but the yellow jersey had eluded him hitherto, which is surprising given how well he can climb. He could well hang on to the lead until Wednesday’s mountain stage through the Massif Central but, as he pointed out, when it does leave his shoulders he will probably pull on green and, failing that, he will be back in the rainbow stripes.
His team, run by the flamboyantly undiplomatic Russian oligarch Oleg Tinkoff, will shut up shop in October, after which he is likely to transfer to a massively beefed up version of the German Bora squad. His Tinkoff team-mate Contador’s future is less certain, in both the short and medium term. It is unclear whether he will retire when Tinkoff closes, although he has said he wants to continue racing. That will worry him less, however, than the question of how much further he gets in the Tour after two crashes in 24 hours.
Contador fell on Sunday with about 60 kilometres covered, as the peloton was sploshing grimfacedly through heavy rain and thick mist in the bocage, and, although he fell less heavily than the previous day, when he hit a traffic island at speed, he bumped his knee and stood by the roadside with the resigned look of a man who was not fussed if his race ended there and then. A good two minutes had passed by the time he remounted and, had the peloton not slowed down as a sign of respect, he might have struggled to regain contact. He lost 48sec by the end of the stage and his body language does not bode well for his future in the race.
General classification after stage two
1. Peter Sagan (Slovakia / Tinkoff) 8:34:42” 2. Julian Alaphilippe (France / Etixx - Quick-Step) +8” 3. Alejandro Valverde (Spain / Movistar) +10” 4. Warren Barguil (France / Giant) +14” 5. Chris Froome (Britain / Team Sky) 6. Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium / BMC Racing) 7. Nairo Quintana (Colombia / Movistar) 8. Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic / Tinkoff) 9. Simon Gerrans (Australia / Orica) 10. Daniel Martin (Ireland / Etixx - Quick-Step)
Points Classification after stage two
1. Peter Sagan (Slovakia / Tinkoff) 87 2. Mark Cavendish (Britain / Dimension Data) 63 3. Marcel Kittel (Germany / Etixx - Quick-Step) 49 4. Andre Greipel (Germany / Lotto) 40 5. Julian Alaphilippe (France / Etixx - Quick-Step) 33 6. Bryan Coquard (France / Direct Energie) 25 7. Alexander Kristoff (Norway / Katusha) 22 8. Leigh Howard (Australia / IAM Cycling) 20 8. Cesare Benedetti (Italy / BORA) 20 10. Alejandro Valverde (Spain / Movistar) 20
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