Peter Sagan’s aggression on the long road to Mende on stage 14 of the Tour de France was aimed at extending his lead at the head of the points classification but it almost yielded the unexpected dividend of a stage victory to boot.
From the outset, Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) would have earmarked the Tour’s four-day trek through the Massif Central as ideal terrain to place a down payment on a fourth consecutive green jersey in Paris. Second place in Rodez on stage 13 handed the Tinkoff-Saxo man a 24-point lead over André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and he looked to extend that buffer by infiltrating the break in the frantic opening hour of racing on Saturday.
Sagan was a permanent fixture off the front as various breakaway groups formed and splintered during the early exchanges, and that enterprise was rewarded with a facile victory in the intermediate sprint at Millau after 78 kilometres. Rather than sit up, Sagan persisted in his efforts and remained part of the 20-man break that would ultimately contest the demanding finale at Mende.
The final haul up the Côte de la Croix Neuve (the so-called Montée Laurent Jalabert) has pitches of 11 percent but the road flattens out ahead of the 1.5 kilometre run from the summit to the finish at Mende’s airstrip.
Sagan’s tactic on the climb was as simple as his task was difficult. As Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Stephen Cummings (MTN-Qhubeka) accelerated on the climb, he had to limit his losses and hope that the race would come back together in the final kilometre.
“I was trying hard on the last climb and thinking I could do well because I was hoping that the climbers get to the top tired after attacking from the bottom. So I just kept pushing my tempo,” Sagan explained afterwards. “I wanted to win but I couldn’t follow on the climb.”
Sagan was left with too much ground to make up to haul himself into the mix for stage honours after cresting the summit but he had the considerable consolation of taking fifth place on the stage, 29 seconds down on the winner Cummings. Greipel failed to pick up a single point on the stage and all of a sudden, the points classification has taken on a rather different guise, as Sagan has stretched his lead out to a mammoth 66 points.
Among those interviewing Sagan in the mixed zone after the stage was Robbie McEwen, who is on the Tour working for Australian television station SBS. The three-time winner of the green jersey put it to Sagan that he has now built up a virtually unassailable lead in the classification. Perhaps it was superstition or mere diplomacy, but Sagan demurred.
“We will see. It’s never enough. It’s only ok if I come to Paris with a 55-point lead,” Sagan said, though it was unclear if he was aware that McEwen himself had once lost the green jersey on the Champs-Élysées, when he was pipped by his fellow countryman Baden Cooke in 2003.
Sunday’s stage sees the peloton drop from the plateau of the Massif Central down towards a possible sprint finish in Valence, though Sagan was coy when asked if it might prove an opportunity to add further to his points lead, or even to land a first Tour stage victory since he won in Albi two years.
“I am not superman,” Sagan said. “I have to see tomorrow how I feel.”