Peter Sagan's place in the Tinkoff-Saxo hierarchy at this Tour de France is such that even a caged canary seemed to garner more attention than he did during the squad's pre-race press conference at the Carlton President hotel on the outskirts of Utrecht on Thursday afternoon.
The canary was presented to Sagan's team leader Alberto Contador during the conference as part of a publicity stunt by a Dutch television crew, under the premise that the Spaniard was something of a bird fancier in his youth, and it prompted the photographers who had squeezed into the small meeting room to swarm around the top table and capture the moment for posterity.
When ordered was restored, and press officer Jacinto Vidarte had drily inquired if there were to be any more birds forthcoming, the questions resumed. Yet again, they were primarily targeted at Contador, who is seeking to become the first man to win the Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998.
Tinkoff-Saxo's Tour line-up is built accordingly around Contador, with Rafal Majka, Roman Kreuziger and Michael Rogers his designated lieutenants in the high mountains and the rest of the squad expected to shepherd him through a demanding first week. Sagan, winner of the points classification for the past three years, will be left to his own devices, though he disagreed when it was eventually put to him that he was peripheral to the team's plans.
"I think I am also part of the team, I am not on the side," Sagan said. "I'm happy, it's a pleasure to ride with Alberto. We can do a very nice Tour and battle for the yellow jersey with other teams. I don't think I feel alone. We're a very good group and we want to win the Tour."
18 years have passed since a team managed to land both the yellow and green jerseys in the same Tour de France – Telekom achieved the feat in both 1996 and 1997 – and Sagan is aware that equalling Sean Kelly's tally of four green jerseys will not be straightforward. In 2012, for instance, Sky sacrificed Mark Cavendish's hopes in the competition rather than do anything to put Bradley Wiggins’s overall win at risk.
Sagan would have been well-versed in his new team's July priorities before he signed on the dotted line last summer, of course, and he was quick to dispel any idea that he was unhappy with Tinkoff-Saxo's approach to the Tour.
"The most important thing at the Tour de France is the yellow jersey," Sagan said. "I think everybody knows that. Also for me, it's nice to be on a team that's fighting for the yellow jersey."
Points competition changes
Sagan's ability to score points in intermediate sprints even on mountain stages over the past three years prompted speculation that the green jersey would become his private property for much of the next decade, but his status on the Tinkoff-Saxo team and the changes to the points classification's scoring system prompted speculation that his crown would be vulnerable this time around.
On the Tour's nine flat stages, there are 50 points on offer for the winner and a 20-point differential between first and second, rather than the usual 10-point gap. The change is designed to favour stage winners and to tip the balance towards the pure sprinters, though the defending champion does not feel that the competition has been "Sagan-proofed."
"We will see because maybe the change to the points system can also be better for me. The difference is not too much and you can take points in the mountains too," Sagan said. "But now with this position in the team and Alberto, we have to see day by day how things go. Maybe it will be harder, maybe not."
When Sagan won three stages on his Tour debut in 2012 and sallied up the road in the break seemingly every other day, the points classification appeared almost to win itself. Such sparkle was markedly absent during a laboured spring campaign, though after showing some of the effervescence of old at the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse in recent weeks, Sagan struck an optimistic note on the eve of La Grande Boucle.
"It's also possible to take the green jersey, if it comes easily or if it comes by itself," Sagan said, before reiterating the obvious caveat: "But the yellow jersey is more important."
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