A group of television reporters waylaid Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) as he filled the pockets of his green jersey with energy gels ahead of stage 11 of the Tour de France and asked him if he had any particular tactical strategy for the day ahead, given the windy conditions expected on the road to Montpellier.
Sagan is often playful to the point of flippant in such situations, and he was in typical form on the start line in Carcassonne. "I never plan," he deadpanned, and then pedaled off, to the bemusement of the television crews.
By day's end, that throwaway comment seemed rather more profound as Sagan improvised his way to his second stage win of this Tour by forging off the front in a four-man group in the finale with Chris Froome (Sky) and then out-sprinting the yellow jersey to take the spoils.
The strong tramontane wind that buffeted the race all day was expected to scatter the peloton into echelons, but while the field duly broke up and reformed throughout the latter part of the afternoon, the day's decisive move came with 12 kilometres remaining, just as it seemed the sprinters' teams had matters under control.
Sagan and his Tinkoff teammate Maciej Bodnar drifted off the front and were quickly joined by Froome and his Sky comrade Geraint Thomas. There was no need to negotiate the terms and conditions of their working alliance. A nod would have sufficed.
"In that situation, you don't have too enough breath to talk, you just say 'Go, go, go,'" Sagan explained afterwards. "It was a good group, with the yellow jersey. I was going for the stage, they were working to take seconds. It was unbelievable, it just happened. You cannot plan that. Thank you to Bodnar and also to Team Sky, because they worked with us. I'm very happy to win a stage that was maybe for sprinters. It was a crazy day, but for us it was very nice."
Despite the best efforts of Lotto Soudal and Etixx-QuickStep, the quartet stretched their lead out beyond 25 seconds on the outskirts of Montpellier, and during those breathless final kilometres, it briefly seemed that Froome had made a substantial gain in the fight for overall victory.
In the end, Froome would have to settle for 6 seconds and the same in bonuses, but while the yellow jersey was still furiously looking to maintain his advantage in the finishing straight, Sagan briefly contemplated trying to manoeuvre his teammate Bodnar into a winning position.
"Froome did everything to come with most time possible, and when Thomas was also dropped I thought maybe he wasn't going to sprint at all," Sagan said. "I wanted Maciej to win, but afterwards Chris started to sprint from behind and I had to go with him. We were in the break to win the stage. Without our combination, the win would never have happened."
Rating Tour victories
The victory was the sixth of Sagan's Tour career, but even though it had come in such unexpected circumstances and against a lofty rival, the Slovak demurred when asked if it was the most satisfying, recalling the victory over Fabian Cancellara and the later homage to Forrest Gump on his debut in 2012.
"It's nice, but still the special one is maybe the first, and the second one was also nice. Another victory was three years ago, when we pulled with the whole team all the day dropped the sprinters and I won the sprint [in Albi – ed.]" Sagan said. "Today was just something you cannot plan. It was just something special – the green jersey with the yellow jersey…"
At that last comment, Sagan broke into a giddy fit of laughter reminiscent of Tom Hulce's portrayal of Mozart in the film Amadeus, and he was still smiling to himself when the next question landed. Having finished second in Revel the previous afternoon after being off the front all day in the break, how did Sagan summon up the strength to pull off the win on Wednesday's windswept leg? The normal rules of conserving energy over the course of a three-week race don't seem to apply to the world champion.
"Actually I felt good today," Sagan said matter-of-factly. "Today for sure it was not a boring stage from the start every moment you had to pay attention. Everybody expected we would split much earlier. But in the end, it was the right moment and things just happened."
After three years of near misses at the Tour, everything seems to be falling into place for Sagan this time around. His lead in the points classification has now yawned out to a mammoth 90 points over Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), and for good measure, he learned that he will not have to ride all the way to the top Mont Ventoux on Thursday afternoon.
"It will be six kilometres less, yeah? Nice," Sagan said. "But there'll be wind before Ventoux too, so it will be a crazy stage tomorrow as well. And good luck to Froomey, because he did a very big effort today. I hope he hasn't used a lot of energy for tomorrow. Tomorrow I hope for me will be, well not a rest day, but one to take easy."
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