What a difference a day makes.
Alberto Contador leads the Giro d’Italia and Peter Sagan is basking in glory after outsprinting Mark Cavendish to win stage four of the Tour of California. Reports of Tinkoff-Saxo’s demise begin to look exaggerated.
This has not been an easy year for the Russian team, with the departure of former owner Bjarne Riis from the general manager's role, and especially for Sagan: the Slovak champion misfired in the early season, remaining outlandishly consistent, but lacking the victories which had once come so easily. Three second-placed finishes from the opening three stages in California seemed only to continue the trend.
Sagan contemplated his third near miss hours after Contador’s men in yellow had been placed unexpectedly on the back foot by a ferocious Astana squad riding for Fabio Aru on stage four of the Giro. Roman Kreuziger’s presence in the breakaway may have inspired Aru’s men, but it was hard to escape the sense that their pursuit of Tinkoff-Saxo’s number two had made its leader work harder than he had intended to keep pace with them.
Don't look back: Peter Sagan's disappointing Spring campaign is beginning to fade from memory. photo: Offside/L'Equipe
Fast forward 24 hours and the Russian squad can celebrate its most satisfying day of the season so far. Contador and his team-mates - notably, Ivan Basso - took the fight to Astana and Aru on the road to Abetone to finish the day in pink. And the presence of Cavendish among those fighting for victory on the finish at Avila Beach means that Sagan’s victory cannot be dismissed as one achieved at the expense of poor opposition.
Sagan dedicated his victory to team-mate Maciej Bodnar, who left the race after crashing on stage three, and Contador’s ascendancy to the top of the classement in Italy is owed as much to the work of his team as to his own brilliance. This is a Giro that is already being fought as hard by the supporting cast as the star turns. Astana are seemingly riding with the inspiration of perceived injustice, having recently earned a reprieve from their threatened explusion from the WorldTour, but Tinkoff-Saxo might also have a point to prove.
Riis’ departure in March threatened turmoil, and even mutiny – Sagan said he would discuss team owner Tinkov’s published criticisms with him “eye-to-eye” before turning a pedal in California - but the ship has steadied on the calm waters of success. For how long Tinkoff-Saxo’s fleet will continue to sail such tranquil seas remains to be seen, but for today at least Oleg’s investment looks wise.
California has been kind to Sagan and teamwork at the Giro is proving its worth even to such an individual talent as Contador (ask Rigoberto Uran how important is the support of team-mates at the corsa rosa). The gloves are off now for stage racing’s grandees. July and the Tour will show whether Tinkoff-Saxo can succeed without Riis and with a twin attack on green and yellow jerseys. For now, in California and Italy, a corner appears to have been turned.