The crossing of the Alps devastated the field of sprinters on this Tour de France, but Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) seems singularly inured to the hardships that his fellow fast men must endure in order to survive the mountains.
Most of the usual landmarks in a bunch sprint were absent at the finish of stage 13 in Valence – Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) were all forced out over the previous 48 hours – but Sagan didn’t need a map to orient himself in this shifting topography as he claimed his third stage win of the Tour. It was different kind of sprint but a familiar kind of outcome.
"It's changed, yes, because the few teams that want to work are not here anymore," Sagan said of Friday's sprint. "There are maybe three or five teams who can pull a fast sprint, but now there are one or two teams [who want to do that]. It changes the bunch now, because everyone wants to sprint now. And it’s a pretty messy sprint no. It's ok, though – everyone gets an opportunity, right? Or everyone can try to create an opportunity."
Sagan knew precisely where his best prospects lay. Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) were the other marquee sprinters to survive the Alps, and the world champion duly posited himself behind them as the peloton hurtled onto the Avenue de Romans for Friday’s finale. Démare led out the sprint only to be passed by Kristoff, who was in turn overtaken by Sagan. It was, Sagan insisted, not as straightforward as it had seemed.
"Today was messy, with everyone trying to sprint, and the climbers were afraid of gaps, so they were up there too," Sagan said. "I was back far in the final K, in 20th or maybe even 25th position. I sprinted to get to the front to be on the wheel of Kristoff, maybe in the last 500 metres."
Sagan’s third stage win of this Tour – and his 11th since his debut in 2012 – buttresses what was already a nigh-on insurmountable lead in the points classification. He now has more than double the tally of the second-placed Kristoff, or 398 points to the Norwegian’s 170. Sagan’s sixth green jersey in seven years will see him equal the record of Erik Zabel, and it is difficult to imagine how the competition could be 'Sagan-proofed' to prevent him from surpassing that mark in the coming years.
The raw numbers, of course, only tell a part of Sagan’s impact on the Tour. His dexterity is such that he can outstrip pure fast men on the flat one day and then compete with puncheurs the next. Saturday’s stage through the Massif Central to Mende finishes atop the Montée Laurent Jalabert might be a case in point. On the same finale three years ago, Sagan came home in 5th place after infiltrating the day’s early break, though he downplayed the prospect of a similar raid this time around.
"Everything is possible, but you know, sometimes it's better to save energy for the third week," Sagan said. "I don't know, I hope a breakaway goes. I don't want to be everywhere. For me it's hard, too… I’m very happy for a breakaway to go. We will see how we manage the stage tomorrow."