Since 2012 it has become increasingly clear that Peter Sagan is, as the French would say, un cas à part – in a class of his own. In sporting terms, the double world champion appears utterly impervious to pressure and can prove utterly unbeatable on his day, as was the case here in a carbon copy of his victory last year in Cherbourg. It is also true in terms of the image he projects.
Cycling has never seen anyone quite like the Slovak, whose strength cannot be matched in this kind of uphill finish, rising just under 100 metres in two kilometres, after a five-hour slog south, mainly into a headwind. At 300 metres to go, as he wound up for the sprint against Michael Matthews, Greg Van Avermaet, Daniel Martin and Arnaud Démare – all names to be reckoned with on their day – the cleat on his right shoe detached itself from his clipless pedal.
In a flash the Slovak had to fish around with his foot to put it back in the pedal, losing momentum as he did so. He was stalled for less than a second but that should have been more than enough to wreck his chances.
Instead, he got going again and had more than enough to hold off Matthews. “I was lucky to find my pedal again at the right moment, and that the finish was a long way away,” he said.
A few yards behind came a 25-rider group that included pretty much every favourite bar Simon Yates, who managed to get on the wrong side of the split and dropped eight seconds, and also Thibaut Pinot, who had made it known that stage wins and the King of the Mountains prize are his priorities.
Of Chris Froome’s rivals, only Richie Porte showed his hand in any sense, putting in a single impressive burst of speed in the final kilometre, but even so looking as if he was more interested in attempting to enable a stage win for Van Avermaet than trying to snatch a few seconds.
Sagan’s style is uniquely bonkers. On Monday he was channelling both Lemmy from Motörhead (bizarre facial hair) and Anna Wintour (eyes peeking out through vast fringe) plus a set of vast, superfluous goggles around his neck. Who on earth knew why but with Sagan it never seems to matter. He does his own thing on his bike as well, for example using his devastating cornering ability to constantly pile the pressure on the opposition when in a breakaway, or riding with utter clarity of vision in the wind, the key to his defence of his world title last September. If he faces a single issue, it is that he is so good he may easily be taken for granted.
As cycling’s only champion with serious internet and youth appeal, combined with his ability on the bike, he was last year’s transfer prize and he opted to become the centre of a revamped Bora–Hansgrohe team, which he leads with the Pole Rafal Majka. Being his own master rather than banging heads constantly with his previous boss, the Russian Oleg Tinkov, clearly suits him. From being odds-on to take a sixth green jersey that now looks as close to a certainty as anything on two wheels can be.
Froome is equally far from being an Identikit champion. With little fanfare, the triple Tour winner is getting quietly on with his campaign; three days in, it is going to plan apart from any lingering effects of Sunday’s crash, which would have been expected to be felt here. He moved up the standings to second yesterday behind Geraint Thomas and he has an advantage over his opponents which is more than healthy.
Around Team Sky, the topic du jour has moved seamlessly from whether their skin suits might be in breach of the rules to whether the British squad has enjoyed the best Tour start in its eight attempts. They have every reason to be happy, with the closest of Froome’s potential rivals now 33sec behind the triple winner.
On the stage to Vittel on Tuesday the focus switches back to the flat-road sprinters, led by Marcel Kittel, who lost time as expected here and will not challenge Thomas for the yellow jersey. Kittel does not have quite the impregnable air of Sagan, and he faces stiff competition from André Greipel, Mark Cavendish and company, but a second victory will set him up for a dominant run to match Cavendish’s last year.