After dominating the puncheurs on the uphill finales at Seraing and Boulougne-sur-Mer, the shallower but deceptively difficult finishing straight at Saint-Quentin at the end of stage 5 of the Tour de France seemed the ideal arena for Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) to extend his rule over the pure sprinters.
The testing drag from the River Somme to the finish line would have provided a fascinating neutral venue for a prize fight between Sagan and André Greipel (Lotto Belisol), but unfortunately for the Slovak, he was left sprawling before he could even step in to the ring, knocked out by a crash just inside the final three kilometres.
Sagan was caught in the crossfire when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) clashed with Tom Veelers (Argos-Shimano) as the jostling for position began in earnest. He was forced into the gutter on the right hand side of the road, and was left dazed as the travelling circus sped on towards Saint-Quentin without the main attraction of its opening week.
"It's like I say every day: everybody wants to do these sprints, and everybody thinks they can do these sprints," a disappointed Sagan said after he came across the line in 152nd place. "Somebody feels bad and is tired but still tries to be in front. I don't know why, but it's like that."
Sagan's downbeat demeanour at the finish was a far remove from the playful exuberance of his victory celebrations earlier in the week. At just 22 years of age, the Tour debutant is having something of a crash course in the fickle nature of fortune's hand at La Grande Boucle, but he was determined to count his blessings as he descended from the podium with the green jersey still on his back.
"Fortunately, I'm not too badly off. I fell and hit my elbow and my backside, but I think it's all ok," said Sagan. "It's a pity for me. I'm happy that I didn't injure myself too badly, but it could have gone a lot better too."
Sagan's misfortune saw his lead in the points classification slashed after Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) stayed the course to finish second behind the stage winner Greipel. Goss now trails Sagan by just 18 points in the hunt for the green jersey, even if the Australian seemed to admit that fortune would inevitably have to play a part if he were eventually to overhaul him.
"It was a real pity because even if I didn't win, I could still have taken a lot of points for the green jersey," Sagan pointed out. "It will be harder again now."
In the battle for sprint supremacy in the opening week of the Tour, the score now stands at 2-2 between Sagan and Greipel, with the world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky) also having opened his account. That trio will expect to be to the fore in Metz on Friday, before the climbers take over at the weekend.
"It's the Tour de France, and everybody wants to do well," said Sagan as he set off gingerly for the team bus, bruised but unbowed. Human after all.
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