Vindication. Affirmation. But above all, relief.
Peter Sagan roared as he crossed the finish line in Porto Sant’Elpidio to win the sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico. He opened his arms, balled his fists and bellowed into the rain. Primal stuff. In exorcising his frustration at a seemingly endless series of near misses, Sagan screamed his defiance at misfortune.
Had you told an observer of the sport a year ago that the Slovak champion would be shouting in ecstatic relief after a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico, he might have asked you to check your facts. Surely you mean the other Italian race in March? Such emotion for La Primavera, of course. But Tirreno-Adriatico? Where he had already won on four separate occasions? Why the fuss?
The fuss is concomitant with the extent of the drought. Sagan will hope that the levee has broken and that victories will flow as easily as they once had. It is wrong to pigeon-hole him as a sprinter, but his versatility does not extend to contention for GC prizes. Indeed, it is stage wins or bust for Tinkoff-Saxo’s other leader. Alberto Contador might have the luxury of losing a battle if he wins the war, but for Sagan, the battle is all there is, one after another. Every failure to win is a defeat.
Might his on-again relationship with victory continue at Milan-Sanremo on Sunday? Sagan’s palmares is still missing a Monument. All those second placed finishes might suddenly be cast in the light of unwavering good form. Sagan is surely as well-prepared for La Primavera as anyone. He has often been in the reckoning, finishing as high as, well, second (in 2013).
Racing without pressure for the first time in nineteen races, Sagan might experience the mental freedom to perform again at his uninhibited best. Will victory in Porto Sant’Elpidio come to be seen as the breaking of a dam? Might the force of Sagan’s will prove uncontainable behind the now-fractured pyschological barrier to victory? Or will he continue to suffer frustration until his race craft matches his physical gifts?
Maturity might prove as great a part of the package required for Sagan to fulfill his potential as fortune. The pressure of a big contract from Tinkoff-Saxo may accelerate his development in this regard. He is not the team’s only star, as he was at Cannondale, and will not be indulged. If the more decorated Contador has not been spared barbed Tweets from Oleg Tinkov, then Sagan surely won’t either.
Tinkoff-Saxo did a fine job for Sagan on stage six, but on the run into Arezzo at the end of stage three, the team was nowhere to be seen. Sagan surfed the wheels of his competitors as well as might be expected and simply ran out of road – just – in his bid to pass stage winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). The Slovak was visibly quicker than Van Avermaet and with a better lead out might have finished the job.
This state of affairs is unlikely to alter, however. Tirreno-Adriatico was the first race at which Tinkoff-Saxo ran Contador and Sagan in the same team. Ask Team Sky how easy it is to satisfy the ambitions of a sprinter and a GC rider. Two of the three stage wins scored by Mark Cavendish at the 2012 Tour came as the result of his own efforts. Only after the job of winning the overall for Wiggins had been completed did he receive a lead out from his own team.
Ironically, given their recent achievements, Sagan is likely to have finished the race of the two seas the more satisfied. Contador finished fifth overall and was the first home in the closing time trial of the pre-race GC heavyweights, but with the most to gain. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was hardly likely to push hard enough to risk overall victory with a crash on the final stage.
Sagan, by contrast, only just made the time cut with an exaggerated energy-saving campaign ahead of his next date with destiny on Sunday. Will he be first across the line on the Via Roma? His return to winning ways would surely be complete should such a monumental victory come to pass.