The man who had forgotten how to win has now forgotten how to lose. After a dry spell that stretched back three years, Peter Sagan's cup runneth over at this Tour de France, and the Slovak completed a hat-trick of victories when he pipped Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) in Berne on stage 16.
Sagan's relative travails of 2014 and 2015 seem to have dissipated with his victory at the Richmond World Championships last autumn – the blessing of the rainbow jersey, as it were – and he arrived at the Tour on a high after a spring campaign that yielded wins in the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem.
A year ago, Sagan finished in the top five a maddening 11 times at the Tour without landing a stage win, like a riddle that became more difficult to solve the more he dwelt upon it. Small wonder, then, that he was unwilling to proffer a tangible explanation for why victory has flowed rather more readily on this year's race.
"I believe destiny," said Sagan, who is now a mammoth 114 points clear in the race for the green jersey. "One year is not good, but I can't say last year or two years ago was bad. I got a lot of second places and didn't win, but that's sport. Sometimes everything goes well and then you have a period when it goes worse. But we have to enjoy it. This year was unbelievable for me and for sure I'm happy that I can win."
Instinct played its part on Monday in Bern, too. The kick up Papiermülhestrasse in the finale left only 30 or so riders in the front group for the finishing sprint, but Sagan was far from the only fast man to have made the selection, with Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange) all making the cut.
The long finishing straight lent itself to strongmen, but it was a dash of guile that proved the difference in the final reckoning. With 450 metres to go, Sagan sat in second wheel and risked hitting the front too early, but smartly manoeuvred himself across to the road and onto Kristoff's rear wheel.
Sagan proceeded to jump around the Norwegian in the final 50 metres, perfectly judging his dive for the line to win in a photo finish. Kristoff would later admit that he had mistimed his sprint, believing the finish to be slightly further away.
"You can see from the final picture. I've lost a lot of times, like this, by a very small piece of tyre but today I was lucky," Sagan said. "Alexander just made his dive for the line very late, but I went before. When throw your bike at the line, first of all you have to pull your bike back. At that moment on the line, he was pulling the bike back and I was throwing mine forward."
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Sagan may feel there was a sense of destiny, too, about claiming victory in the home city of his great foe, Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segredo), who had to settle for sixth place in the finishing sprint. The cobbles of Flanders have been the crucible of their rivalry but its genesis came at the 2012 Tour, when Sagan defeated Cancellara in Seraing and found his exuberant victory celebrations met with patrician disdain.
"When I won my first stage of the Tour de France, I was young and I wanted to win. He won the prologue, he was in the yellow jersey. At that time I was a young rider in the peloton. We went in the breakaway together and I said I want to beat you and win a stage of the Tour de France. Maybe he was angry at that time with me because I was young and that," Sagan said, though he was generous in his assessment of Cancellara in his final Tour and his final months in the professional peloton.
"Fabian is a big name in the cycling and for sure he will be also a legend. Like, he already is a legend in cycling."
Sagan was less forthcoming, however, when asked whether another larger than life figure, Oleg Tinkov, might be tempted to revise his decision to cease his sponsorship of the Tinkoff team at season's end. The world champion has been linked with a switch to Bora-Argon 18 in recent weeks and has also attracted firm interest from Astana.
"You know nobody can see inside the head of Oleg," Sagan said. "You have to ask him, you know."