When Peter Sagan lifted his front wheel across the finish line of stage 4 at the Tour of California Wednesday in Avila Beach, taking his first victory since he won a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in March, it looked as if a heavy weight had also been lifted from his shoulders.
The 25-year-old Slovakian superstar has been under intense pressure to win from Tinkoff-Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkoff, who publicly expressed his disappointment in his star rider in a blog on Cyclingnews last week.
Followed by his girlfriend, who was proudly carrying his podium bouquet, Sagan bounded down from the uphill sprint finish toward the post-race press conference in a yacht club on a pier in the small California beach town.
The King of California, as the race announcers are fond of calling the most prolific stage winner in the race's 10-year history, was obviously back in his element. After a few snapshots with fans, some congratulatory hugs and a couple of opening questions, Sagan settled into his spot on the dais and took aim at Cyclingnews' coverage of the ongoing drama with Tinkov.
"I don't understand one thing about Cyclingnews," Sagan said. "Because it seems like Cyclingnews is like Paparazzi news. Last time what I said was different. And I don't like making polemic about Oleg and me. I said the last time that if I want to speak with Oleg I prefer speaking for eyes."
Cyclingnews reported that Sagan responded to Tinkov's blog by saying in the opening press conference on Friday that he wanted to speak with the team owner "eye to eye." With that off his chest, Sagan quickly returned to his chipper self and expressed his happiness at finally beating Mark Cavendish in a full-on drag race to the line.
"I think this is very good for everybody, for me, for the team," said Sagan, who dedicated his win to teammate to Maciej Bodnar, a teammate who abandoned the race after crashing during stage 3.
"Pressure or no pressure, it’s normal," he said. "Sometimes you can win, sometimes you are second. Also, now after six years of being pro, it's more difficult to win. Before I was surprising everybody. Now everybody looks to me."
Sagan made his determination to win the stage obvious when he tried to sneak away from the field, or at least cause a split, in the coastal winds as the peloton approached town. When that didn’t work, he and his team regrouped for the finale.
"For the finish we lost also [Daniele] Bennati because he flat tired in the last three kilometres," Sagan said. "And then Matti Breschel and Michael Morkov did a good job in the last two kilometres to bring me on the front. Then also Mark Cavendish was a little bit behind for the last turns left, right, left, and then I take some position on the front."
The tricky finish in Avila beach included three technical turns in the final kilometres, and Sagan, one of the best bike handlers in the peloton, used his skills to move up in the bunch while Cavendish languished in traffic. Sagan also benefited from having raced the same route in 2012, when he won the field sprint for second behind solo winner Jens Voigt.
"The sprint was a little bit more technical," Sagan said of what made the difference on Wednesday after finishing twice behind Cavendish in the first two stages.
"From the last kilometres it was three corners, and the group was a mess the last three kilometres," he said. "Everybody wanted to be on the front. Also in the last kilometre I was a little bit behind, maybe 10th position. In the last corner I take some position in the front and I was a little bit advantage over Mark."
Sagan's moves in the finale earned the respect of at least one of his competitors.
"He made some pretty sweet moves through those last turns," said MTN-Qhubeka's Tyler Farrar. "He's quite the bike pilot."
After finishing second in the first three stages, Sagan is now just 22 seconds behind race leader Toms Skujins (Hincapie Racing). The Tinkoff sprinter said that everyday is an opportunity for another win, although he acknowledged that the Queen Stage finish atop Mt. Baldy does not suit his skills.
If Sagan could grab another time bonus during Thursday's 154km stage from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita, he could move within 12 seconds of Skujins. A good time trial during stage 6 could put him in the yellow jersey, but he remained low key about that possibility.
"We'll see day-by-day," he said. "Tomorrow is another day and then a mountain finish. That will be very hard for me to beat Toms."