Sagan's California rollercoaster ride takes an upward path

The setting for Friday's Tour of California individual time trial, which took place in the shadows of the massive rollercoasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in Santa Clarita, couldn't have provided a more perfect metaphor for Peter Sagan's up-and-down race so far.

The Tinkoff-Saxo rider started the week answering questions about criticisms levelled at him by his team owner on a Cyclingnews blog, then he finished second for three straight stages, the last of which came after teammate Maciej Bodnar crashed out of the race.

Sagan bounced back to take the stage 4 win in a technical sprint finish in Avila Beach, but his frustration came to the surface again when had to settle for third behind Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) and Zico Waeytens (Giant-Alpecin) during the stage 5 sprint.

The 25-year-old Slovakian champion bounced back in a big way on Friday, however, winning the 10.6km time trial by a whopping 15 seconds over runner-up Jos van Emden of LottoNL-Jumbo, taking over the race lead in the process.

Where this ride will end for Sagan is anyone’s guess, but he said at Friday's post-race press conference that he will try to hold onto the yellow jersey through the race’s Queen Stage and all the way into Pasadnena, where the Tour of California concludes on Sunday. That's a tall order for a sprinter, but there's no denying Sagan’s current upward trajectory.

Sagan said he believed he could take the yellow jersey during the time trial, and the stage win was just an added bonus. The Tinkoff rider clearly benefited from the bad weather in the California mountains after organisers replaced the originally planned 25km time trial at Big Bear Lake with the much shorter 10.6km route in Santa Clarita.

"Without legs you can't win," Sagan said. "But, yeah, it was good because the parcours was 10km, which is better for me than 20 or 25.

"I did altitude before the Tour of California, so it would have been no problem racing at altitude, but 24km is, yeah, enough."

Sagan said he knew early on that he was putting in a good ride on Friday, and his confidence continued to build as he got time splits from his team’s follow car.

"During the [time trial], my director sportiff, Paxti Villa, was behind me, and my girlfriend she was writing all the times, and then they told me you are five seconds on the front, and now more and more," he said. "It was good."

It was indeed good enough to give him a 28-second lead over previous race leader Toms Skujins (Hincapie Racing) and 45 seconds over third-paced Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep).

If he does lose the jersey on Saturday, Sagan still has a chance to snatch the green jersey from QuickStep's Mark Cavendish on Sunday. It would be his sixth consecutive green jersey in California, but Cavendish currently leads him in that competition by six points.

"We'll see because there were no points for the green jersey today," he said. "To beat Mark Cavendish in the sprint, I am always trying, but it depends on the finish, how it's technical.

"I don’t think [Sunday's finish] is very technical because it’s on a circuit," he said. "But now I want to enjoy today, and after I want to think about tomorrow. Sunday is two days from now."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.