Plot twist: Peter Sagan’s unlikely path to California supremacy

Sagan surprises everyone by staying close to the climbers on Mt. Baldy and then delivering the GC win on the final stage

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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PASADENA, California (VN) — The chain of events that led to Peter Sagan’s (Tinkoff-Saxo) overall victory at the Amgen Tour of California Sunday in Pasadena were as thrilling as they were unexpected.

The road to Sagan’s improbable victory began with five straight podium finishes, and the time bonuses each brought. His path to the top step of the classification was accelerated by a snowstorm and a venue change that dramatically suited his strengths. What followed was an impressive display of man against mountain, finally ending at the Rose Bowl with a bike throw and a photo finish.

It was an exciting, unforeseen conclusion to a story that seemed to begin with just a few major characters, and little room for a plot twist.

One of the things that set this year’s Amgen Tour of California apart from every other edition was the fact that there was no real pre-race favorite in the peloton.

Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) was on hand and fresh off three sprint wins at the Tour of Turkey, all but assured to take several sprint victories against a sprint field that had seen Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) and Ben Swift (Sky) cancel their flights due to injuries and illness. Sagan was back for a sixth straight year, looking to add to his tally of 11 stage wins and five straight green jerseys. But on the GC side, there just wasn’t the same firepower.

Dutch rider Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) was the only returning champion in the field, but his fitness was questionable due to a knee injury sustained earlier this season.

The same was true for American Lawson Craddock (Giant), who finished third overall in 2014 but missed much of the spring season due to numerous broken bones sustained in a crash at the Santos Tour Down Under in January.

Young French rider Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx) was coming off a revelatory spring, including a second place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but he was unproven at weeklong stage races and also on long, sustained climbs.

Colombian Sergio Henao (Sky) was viewed as the most likely GC favorite, largely based on his second overall to Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) in early April.

The long, steep climb to the summit finish of Mt. Baldy on stage 7 was always going to be the most decisive in the race, with the flat 15-mile time trial in Big Bear Lake on stage 6 the next-most important for the general classification.

For the first few days, everything seemed to follow the script. Cavendish won the first two sprints and took the race lead. Stage 3 brought a minor plot development, and a fresh new character, when Toms Skujins, a young rider on the Hincapie Racing development team, soloed to victory and the race lead. Sagan delivered an uphill sprint to win on stage 4, and Cavendish made it a hat trick on stage 5.

But when race owners AEG Sports and organizers Medalist Sports were forced to relocate the stage 6 time trial due to a snowstorm in Big Bear Lake, the narrative tilted in Sagan’s favor.

What first seemed to be a logistical nightmare for the Amgen Tour organization — just imagine reassigning 500 hotel rooms in 24 hours — ended up rewarding them with the most thrilling finale a race organizer could conceive. The entire general classification was decided on the final stage, in the final sprint, and by a photo finish, with Sagan finishing three seconds ahead of Alaphilippe.

If one were to tally all of the bonus seconds earned by Sagan and Alaphilippe over eight stages, the French rider actually covered the 707 miles faster — Sagan earned a total of 32 bonus seconds over the week, while Alaphilippe earned only one. But that’s ultimately immaterial, as both men raced over the same course, with the same rules in place.

Rather than bonus seconds, it was the 10km time trial at Magic Mountain, a short, technical course that demanded equal parts power and bike-handling prowess, which changed the game.

Sagan’s victory on that stage, and the time gaps he opened — 45 seconds over Alaphilippe, and another 10 on Henao and Gesink — gave him motivation to attempt the unthinkable, to try to stay within contact of some of the best climbers in the sport on a 7km climb with an average gradient of nine percent.

Alaphilippe showed his class by responding to Henao’s acceleration at 4km to go with a winning counterattack, while further back, Sagan muscled his way up Mt. Baldy, pedaling at a much lower cadence than the much lighter climbers. And though he was suffering, the Slovakian champion never gave up the chase, sprinting across the line and collapsing at the finish. He ceded his GC lead by just two seconds.

With bonus time on offer on the final stage — at one intermediate sprint as well as on the finish line — the entire eight-stage race was going to come down to bonus seconds. And while Alaphilippe did his best, finishing third in the intermediate sprint behind Cavendish and Sagan, it proved an impossible task in the end.

Sagan was the next-best sprinter in the field, and though he barely managed to finish third at the line, in a photo finish with Tyler Farrar (MTN-Qhubeka), he’d done just enough to deliver the Amgen Tour its most thrilling finale in 10 editions.

“We really tried, but give credit to Tinkoff-Saxo,” Cavendish said. “They were strong, and they rode well. Even when they all finally exploded, Peter just chased things down on his own, he was still there. He really wanted that. He’s been consistent, he was on the podium every day, and I think, finally, he deserved it. We’re obviously disappointed but we tried everything, they tried everything, and they came out on top.”

On the final GC podium, the muscle-bound classics rider was flanked by a pair of lean climbers. With the exception of Mt. Baldy, where he finished sixth, Sagan had stood upon the podium every day of the race. Alaphilippe would have to be content with a stage win, second overall, and the best young rider’s jersey — on top of Cavendish’s four stage wins and the points jersey.

“It was so close today, but I feel good,” Alaphilippe said. “At the finish Mark Cavendish won the stage, and that’s good for the team. It’s a good experience for me, for sure. I’m a little disappointed about the general classification, but it’s already been a good performance from me. And it’s Peter Sagan in front of me, so…. I’m really happy about my victory yesterday, and today, one more time with Mark. It’s been a good experience for me. I’m really happy.”

And for Sagan, whose spring classics campaign delivered no victories, he seemed as surprised as anyone that he proved to be the central character of this year’s GC battle.

“I never imagined this. It’s a surprise. I think for me, and for everybody, this is a surprise,” Sagan said. “I was just riding for stage victories, day by day, and then I was in this situation to do well on the climb, and not lose too much time, and then today, here, I finished third, and… there you have it. I’m very happy. It’s crazy. But this is cycling, sometimes you have luck, and sometimes you lose. I’ve said before, cycling is very difficult, but it can also be very nice.”

The 2015 Amgen Tour of California also served as a reminder — Sagan’s story is far from finished.

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