Peter Sagan had long exhausted all superlatives even before the Tour de France began, but the Liquigas-Cannondale rider continued to showcase his apparently limitless repertoire on stage 14, as the race made its entry into the Pyrenees.
Perhaps it was to chase points for the green jersey, or to prepare the ground for a possible attack by Vincenzo Nibali. Maybe it was to win the stage, or maybe it was simply because he could.
Whatever his motives, and in spite of the two first category climbs on the agenda, the 22-year-old Sagan delivered another startling performance when he infiltrated the break of the day after 50 kilometres of racing, and then came closer than anyone anticipated to adding his fourth stage win of this year's Tour when he finished second behind the canny Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank).
"It was a good day and I was feeling well so I managed to get into the break which was good for picking up points for at the intermediate sprint," Sagan said afterwards by way of explanation.
When Sagan hoovered up the 20 points on offer in Tarascon-sur-Ariège with the minimum of fuss, his breakaway companions must surely have expected the Slovak to bid them adieu once the Pyrenean pursuits began in earnest on the Port de Lers shortly afterwards.
"I thought that I'd get dropped on the first climb because I wasn't feeling too good there. I had a moment of crisis," Sagan admitted, but somewhat improbably, he was still there as the eleven-man group crossed the summit. Perhaps there was something in the Ariège air – at the same time, world champion Mark Cavendish was putting in a stint of pace-making in the Sky-led peloton, 10 minutes further back down the road.
The final climb, the Mur de Péguère, was the day's most daunting obstacle, but if the break was unsettled by Sagan's continued presence, they certainly weren't showing it, with Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) et al happy to tap out a steady tempo as Sagan sat on.
As the gradient stiffened to 18 per cent in the final three kilometres, the Rabobank pair of Steven Kruijswijk and Sánchez realised the danger, and upped the pace in an effort to shake off Sagan. Although they initially succeeded, the green jersey showed that he has added increased race-craft to his palate by maintaining his tempo as the attacking began up ahead.
"On the second climb, I went quite well and I even got over the top in 3rd place," Sagan said matter-of-factly. He swooped down the descent in pursuit of Casar and Gorka Izaguirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi), but in spite of his urgency, they weren't able to prevent Sánchez and Gilbert from latching back on. "Gilbert and Sánchez came back on, and then when Sánchezwent away nobody went after him to catch him because they all thought I would do it," he said.
Sanchez gratefully built up his lead and reached Foix alone to win by 47 seconds. Sagan comfortably rattled off the sprint for second place, just 24 hours after André Greipel had beaten him in a rather more exacting match-up in Le Cap d'Agde.
In most cases, two second place finishes in 24 hours would be enough to provoke outpourings of the most unspeakable frustration. The 22-year-old Sagan, with a 97-point lead in the points classification and three stage wins already to his name, can afford to be somewhat more sanguine in defeat.
"It was a bit difficult in the end," he said simply. "But that's racing and Sanchez was very strong. We weren't able to bring him back."
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