It takes a particular breed of confidence to turn up for a race with a bell on your handlebars, but then Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) appears to be operating on an altogether different plane to his rivals in the opening week of this Tour de France.
After seeing off the puncheurs at Seraing and Boulogne-sur-Mer, the so-called "Tourminator" duly added the pure sprinters to the growing list of his vanquished as he powered to victory on stage 6 in Metz on Friday. In a frenetic finishing sprint, he held off the challenge of André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) to claim his third win of the Tour, consolidate his grip on the green jersey and confirm his pre-eminence as the stand-out personality of the race's opening week.
"I was very happy when I won today because I was also surprised," Sagan said, admitting that he thought the pure sprinters would have too much for him in Metz. "I was thinking before for second or third place."
The technical nature of the run-in perhaps helped to tilt the balance back in the favour of the explosive Sagan. With Lotto Belisol unable to string things out completely for Greipel, Sagan was able to zip around him to claim the win in the shadow of the striking Centre Pompidou.
"Today was a very good arrival because the last turn was inside the final kilometre," Sagan said. "After the turn we were always increasing in speed. It's not good for me when we spend the last 5km in a line at 60-70kph because I can't go past, but when we go a little bit slow and then you go faster, it's good."
In keeping with his exuberance earlier in the week, Sagan struck an Incredible Hulk pose as he crossed the line, but perhaps more noteworthy was the bell that adorned his bike at the start in Epernay. "The motorbikes are always beeping and looking for space here at the Tour, so now I can do it myself," he said by way of explanation as he went to sign on, although the said accoutrement was no longer on board when he got down to the serious business of winning the stage.
It is difficult to recall such a young Tour debutant making such an immediate and lasting impact on the race in modern times. While riders such as David Millar (2000) and Eric Vanderaerden (1983) enjoyed opening day time trial victories, young sprinters have often needed to get one Tour under their belts before stepping up to the mark.
For the 22-year-old Sagan, the transition to the greatest stage of all has been seamless, and there is already an air of inevitability about his march to the green jersey in Paris, a competition which he now leads by 31 points from Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge).
"I am very happy for today because I took some points," Sagan said. "But the Tour de France is still long and I still need to save energy for the third week, so we'll see."
Given the high-octane nature of his performances thus far, saving energy has never appeared particularly prominent on Sagan's list of priorities. In spite of what the metallic "Tourminator" custom paint job on his bike suggests, however, Sagan insisted that he too had experienced the same travails as the mortals.
"In the second part of my first year as a professional, I was often empty," he said. "And last year at the Vuelta, I had some days when I was in crisis, it's something that I've tried to eliminate. I hope I don't have one at the Tour."
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