Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) may be the only rider in the peloton who could have pulled off his feat Saturday at the Tour of California, where he jumped into a breakaway group on a notoriously difficult Santa Rosa stage, escaped that group for a long solo flyer, and then salvaged his day with second place in the bunch sprint after getting caught with about 25km to go.
"It was hard day," the relaxed and jovial world champion said in the post-stage press conference, summoning a bit of uncharacteristic understatement.
"From the start, six or seven riders went away," he continued. "We had in the breakaway Michael Gogl. One team, Rally, they wanted to catch the breakaway and they started to pull. They got very close to the breakaway and then they attacked, and I also attacked with them. Then there were 10 or 12 guys in the break."
Sagan's decision to go in a breakaway seemed odd on a day that looked like it could favour him with a reduced-bunch sprint. He could have sat in the group and waited for everything to come back together near the finish, saving his energy for the final bunch kick. But the unpredictable Slovakian said he favoured his chances out front.
"It's very difficult to ride in the group, because if I am in the group nobody pulls and they let the breakaway go," he said. "And if I am in the breakaway everyone is pulling to catch me. It's not my decision what they can do. I'm doing what I want and what I am told."
When the yellow jersey group of Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) came up to Sagan's original breakaway, the race reshuffled again. Sagan didn't throw in the towel there, however, sneaking away again in a five-rider move that also included Classics rival Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and general classification contender George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo). But that composition didn't appear to suit Sagan either, so he jumped away again to start his solo mission over the final climb up Coleman Valley Road and the descent back to the finish.
"They were pulling very slow on the flat," he said of his breakaway companions. "I don't know if they wanted to save energy for the final or something. I told them that we had to go because the field was coming. Nobody was working very well, and then I thought, 'OK, I go alone.' I tried, but in the back was a very strong group."
Behind Sagan, Direct Energie was massed on the front of the much-reduced peloton, getting help from Katusha after the team's sprinter, Alexander Kristoff, made it over the final climb.
Sagan's gap had gone past 1:30 over the climb, but it quickly started coming down as the teams organised on the front of the chase. The Tinkoff rider called up his team car to have a chat with his director, and the news he got seemed to put an end to his adventure.
"I asked him who was pulling in the back," Sagan said. "He said it's organised and a bunch of teams. I said, 'OK, it's impossible to go alone with that wind and also after a lot of kilometres in the legs.' I told him, 'OK, I'll try to recover and I'm going to do the sprint.' And it was OK."
It certainly was OK, as Sagan slipped back into the bunch and bided his time while Katusha drove the peloton over three finishing circuits in town. Sagan planted himself on Kristoff's wheel but couldn't come around the Norwegian, who was sprinting on fresher legs.
"In the end I tried my sprint," Sagan said. "If I tried to sprint early I could win, but it's not everyday. I am very happy with my result and what I did. I am happy also tomorrow we have the finish and I am holding the green jersey, and I am OK."