First world problems at the Vuelta a España. As Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) has long since realised, a rider who can win on just about every kind of finale inevitably ends up facing an impromptu stewards’ inquiry every other day he goes out to race.
“Unfortunately every stage seems to suit me, so I can only try,” Sagan told reporters after he was beaten into third place on stage 5 to Alcalà de Guadaira.
As Orica-GreenEdge’s Mat Hayman put it afterwards, the uphill finishing straight “had Sagan’s name written all over it” but as it turned out, it was Hayman's young teammate Caleb Ewan who would come away with the win, careening past Sagan and second-placed John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) within sight of the line.
Sagan is rarely given to offering excuses after falling short of the win, tending to accept defeat, in public at least, with fatality rather than frustration. On Wednesday, he accepted responsibility for being unable to deliver stage honours from a winning position, admitting that he was still feeling the effects of his second place finish behind Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the stiffer finale 24 hours earlier in Vejer de la Frontera.
“It was a technical, hard sprint today and so perfect for me, but today I didn’t have good legs,” Sagan said. “I had a perfect position from the last corner but I messed up the sprint and that was my fault. I can only thank the team because they did a good job and put me in the perfect position.
“Maybe I tried too hard to keep up yesterday and lost a bit today. But everything can happen, the Vuelta is still long.”
Thanks to his consistency and his stage victory in Malaga on stage 3 – his first in a Grand Tour since 2013 – Sagan is in the green jersey of leader of the points classification. Asked about his chances of defending the jersey to Madrid on Monday, Sagan joked that he didn’t even know the scoring system at the Vuelta.
If he looks closely, he will find that a landslide victory of the kind achieved at the past four Tours de France is unlikely. While there were murmurs that ASO had attempted – in vain – to Sagan-proof the race for the green jersey in France by awarding extra points to the winners of the flattest stages, in Spain the issue is that there is no weighting of any description. All stage wins carry the same amount of points, meaning that a consistent climber can just as easily win the classification, as was the case with Alejandro Valverde in 2012 and 2013.
“My plans for the next few days? We'll see tomorrow,” Sagan said when asked about his prospects in Thursday’s uphill finish at Sierra de Cazorla. “For sure the heat is not good for me. I think tomorrow won’t be an easy day but I’ll try to save some energy for the next few days.”
As the Vuelta progresses, of course, Sagan will eventually have to consider whether to save his energy for World Championships road race in Richmond. Speaking at the weekend, he acknowledged that it was by no means a certainty that he would reach Madrid.
“We will see how I am feeling after 10 days,” Sagan said. “I want to be good at the Worlds, and for Slovakia it’s important. For sure I want to try to do my best preparation for this race.”
Twelve months ago, Sagan abandoned the after two weeks in order to prepare for the Worlds, while in 2013 he followed a North American racing programme as he built towards a tilt at the rainbow jersey in Florence. He was non-committal as to whether he felt either approach was more suitable than the other.
“It depends always on the Worlds, and the last two years riders who didn’t do the Vuelta have won the Worlds,” he said. “But anyway, a one-day race is special and only one rider can win it.”
Just like – almost – every stage at the Vuelta, every edition of the World Championships road race seems tailored to Sagan’s characteristics, though he claimed that he has no prior knowledge of this year’s circuit in Richmond, nor did he feel it mattered.
“I know nothing about it,” he said. “Nothing. Because the most important thing is to get the Worlds in top form. If you don’t get in top form, what are you going to do? The preparation is more important than looking at the course. We’ll ride around it I don’t know how many times in the race anyway, no?”