Peter Sagan makes bike racing look so easy. He has great confidence in his bike-handling skills, maneuvers with ease through the peloton and uses all his considerable power to contest every sprint he thinks he can win. Because of these qualities, Sagan has just finished the Tour de France for the sixth time as winner of the green jersey points competition. And had he not been for his wrong exclusion from the 2017 Tour for an alleged “dangerous sprinting” transgression, he might well have been receiving his seventh green jersey title in Paris on Sunday.
Words: John Wilcockson/Images: James Startt
As it is, Sagan has now equaled the record of former German sprint hero Erik Zabel as a six-time winner of the Tour’s green jersey competition, which was inaugurated in 1953. And Sagan being only 28 years old, the Slovak and world champion clearly has the opportunity to add three or four green jerseys to his Tour wardrobe, maybe more. But this year, winning the green wasn’t a shoo-in.
After racking up an insurmountable points haul after two weeks of racing, all Sagan had to do was survive the Pyrénées. That should have been a straightforward task for a man who is comfortable with climbing, even if his 6-foot, 160-pound frame is not suited to the highest peaks. Indeed, on the most intense day in the mountains, the three-climb, 65-kilometer stage 17, he was still with the group of GC leaders on the second climb, the Col de Val Louron-Azet, only dropping off near the summit. But then, as he was chasing back on the tricky, high-speed descent, disaster struck.
“I crashed in a turn; in the corner, I made a mistake. It looked like a fast corner but after, I just went a little more right. I was braking, but it was not enough,” he said later. “After I fly through the forest, I hit a big rock with [the muscle on] my ass.” With the back of his green jersey shredded, shorts ripped, and right leg and arm bloodied, Sagan managed to get back on his bike; though he’d say later, “If I was at any other race, other than the Tour de France, then I wouldn’t ride, but I’m here and I have to finish.”
To finish that stage 17, he got all his teammates (except climber Rafal Majka) around him on the longest, highest above-category climb of the Tour: the 16-kilometer Col du Portet. They finished more than 26 minutes behind, and after visiting the mobile x-ray unit, Sagan was relieved that he hadn’t broken any bones. He managed to stay with the peloton on the next day’s gently rolling stage to Pau, where he even made a finishing effort to take eighth in the field sprint. But stage 19 would be a very different affair….
Facing more than six hours in the saddle on a 200-kilometer course that featured six categorized, including the mighty Tourmalet and Aubisque ascents, Sagan knew it would be a difficult stage. After an extremely fast start, he found himself struggling on the third climb, the Cat. 1 Col d’Aspin. “I was surprised with the first climb,” he said. “I thought, ‘Hell, what am I going to do?’”
Commenting on Sagan’s progress, his Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Patxi Villa said, “He told me that he suffers a lot. After a crash, the hardest time is always 48 hours later. Peter is having the hardest day of his cycling life ever….”
Despite having teammates Daniel Oss and Maciej Bodnar helping him, Sagan struggled all the way up the 12-kilometer-long Aspin, losing some four minutes. But Oss and Bodnar helped him get up to the day’s gruppetto that formed just before the Tourmalet. It was then just a matter of hiding the pain and grinding out the unending climbs. “I managed it well with the gruppetto,” he said. “My teammates kept me mentally strong. But physically it was really hard…a very hard day. The hardest one.”
Sagan was one of 33 riders to finish in the gruppetto at Laruns, more than 38 minutes behind the leaders, and just within the day’s time limit. All he needed to do now was complete the stage 20 time trial (he was 135th fastest of the 145 riders) and ride the best he could into Paris on Sunday. After crossing the line on the Champs-Élysées in eighth place, he told reporters: “I was not able to sprint well…like before. I have a lot of hematomas and I haven’t slept well in the last four days. Recovery has been slower, and I didn’t have energy to compete.”
But Sagan did complete his toughest Tour, winning three stages before his crash and scoring 477 points to win his sixth green jersey, seven points more than his own record score. And after praising his teammates for their huge help, he added: “I think it was an amazing Tour de France for us…better than last year.” That was a typical Sagan quip. Last year, of course, his Tour ended at the end of stage 4, when he and Mark Cavendish collided and fell to the ground, with the judges disqualifying Sagan—a decision that was nullified by the UCI a few months later.
That incident prevented Peter Sagan from shooting for a sixth green jersey in 2017. But now he has it. And next year, he’ll be aiming at No. 7.