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Cycling giveth and cycling taketh away.
For one leader, stage two of the Tour de France was a standout moment in his career. For another, it was a case of fate kicking him when he was already down.
There were very different fortunes for Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador on Sunday, with the Tinkoff stablemates experiencing the real ebb and flow of cycling.
Sagan was best on the uphill finish to Cherbourg En Cotentin, surviving a very steep ramp and then biding his time before coming around Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) inside the final 50 metres.
The victory and the related time bonus saw him replace Mark Cavendish (Team Dimension Data) as the new race leader, thus earning the first yellow jersey of his career.
In complete contrast, Contador slipped further away from the Maillot Jaune. He crashed on stage one, hurting his shoulder, and then fell again approximately 120 kilometres from the end of stage two. He got back up to the peloton but suffered on the final climb, losing 48 seconds.
Perhaps compounding the issue, the rider driving the pace at the time was teammate Roman Kreuziger.
Tinkoff with Kreuzinger managed to drop Contador for Sagan to win. Stressful dinner table tonight?
Does Tinkoff defend jersey?#TDF2016
— Frankie ANDREU (@FakieFrankie) July 3, 2016
The completion of a four year quest
In the team press conference prior to the start of the race Sagan gave a philosophical answer about his prospects of taking the yellow jersey.
“I was trying for four years to be in the yellow and it never happened,” he explained. “Sometimes it is better that I don’t try. Then maybe it happens.
“If you are looking for it to happen, it doesn’t work.”
That more relaxed approach to things seemed to pay off with his success on Sunday.
“I am very happy about the yellow jersey. I have to thank all my teammates, who did a very good job. And Roman Kreuziger, who pulled all the last climb and led me to the last 400 metres,” he said. “Victory is not easy. Never. Maybe people think sometimes it is easy but it is never easy.
“This is the first time for the yellow jersey in my career, after four years [in the Tour], so I don’t think it is very easy. You have to have luck and also condition. With a lot of things together, you can do something. If there is bad luck, it is very hard to be in the front.”
This time last year things seemed very different for Sagan. He went into the race under pressure from team owner Oleg Tinkov to deliver big results, but things didn’t quite click. His last Tour stage win had been back in 2013 and no matter how hard he tried to notch up another one, he kept missing out.
His final Tour haul was five second places, two thirds, three fourths, fifth and seventh. That secured him a fourth consecutive green jersey, but his target of a stage win wasn’t realised.
As was pointed out to him during Sunday’s press conference, Sagan had explained the difficulty in winning a stage as being at least partially due to being a marked rider.
However, despite wearing the world championship jersey – and thus being even more identifiable – things have worked out very differently in this year’s Tour. He was asked if he had learned something different about how to approach the end of a race.
“No, for sure no,” he answered. “I don’t change anything. It is like what I said before, [it is] destiny.
[In 2015] I was always there – second, third, second, third. Okay, sometimes I won [races]. But I don’t know. I am very happy with what I did in the last year. For sure every big race is more experience in life, all the things that happen in life give you more experience. It is like that.”
Perhaps it’s simply a question of him being on a roll and trusting that things will work out. That approach can in itself help to fend off stress; a kind of ‘what will be will be’ philosophy.
“If I am today second, I am not here [in press conference] now,” he said. “What I can I say? Life is life. If life brings me [something] then I take. What I can change? Nothing.
“[It’s] because I believe everybody has some destiny, in the space or somewhere. If I have to be here, I am here. Maybe for me the first two years in the pro was more stressful. Now I try to enjoy it.”
Contador on the back foot
Alberto Contador is also trying to enjoy his Tour campaign but, thus far, it’s been a very difficult task. Two crashes in two days plus a near-minute time loss is definitely not the beginning he wanted. Even if his body heals up completely in the days ahead and he suffers no further time loss, he is already on the back foot and needs to make up time to get back on track.
Sagan saw how the accident happened and explained the circumstances around Sunday’s fall.
“Today I was on his side and this happened. We went easy, Tony Martin hit a speed bump and his hands fell from his bars. He crashed on the side of Alberto. If he crashed on my side, I would have crashed. It was bad luck.”
— Le Tour de France (@LeTour) July 3, 2016
Contador’s spokesman Jacinto Vidarte gave an insight into the rider’s situation.
“He was very touché (affected) this morning,” he told CyclingTips. “But then after the new crash, more again. He knew that he would probably lose time at the finish. He tried to do the best but it was impossible to be in the peloton.”
While he may be battered and bruised, Vidarte doesn’t think there is any chance that the Spaniard will have to retire from the race. He said that the main danger is if he doesn’t recover physically before the big mountains occur.
Fortunately, though, he has previous experience of being in such a position and things worked out well there.
“The last example is the last Giro d’Italia,” said Vidarte. “He suffered some crashes there but then he managed to win the race. Maybe – I hope so – he will win here also. But in this moment, we have to wait, like we did in the Giro when he crashed and suffered in the shoulder.
“He needed some days to recover a bit before the time trial. Here it is before the mountains and then we will see what happens there in the Pyrenees.”
Sagan said that he still has faith in the Spaniard. “We did just two stages, tomorrow could be different also,” he reasoned. “Alberto had bad luck, but also different riders can have this. I don’t know how much he lost. 48 seconds, okay, it is not the maximum.
“But for sure if Alberto is as strong as he is [as he was prior to the crash – ed.], for sure he can fight for the yellow jersey. I believe that. We are just at the start.”
“It is like everybody loses their brain”
The notion of a big race favourite losing ground so early will frustrate some fans. Each year at least one of the contenders has a setback early on. While it is impossible to eliminate all danger from the sport, it is always a little deflating for the event when team leaders hit the deck and see their chances affected as a result.
Sagan said that there is a dangerous culture developing as regards safety.
“Now it is very hard to enjoy the bike in the race,” he explained. “When I did my first Tour de France, it was a different race. Now I am in the group and everybody is riding like they don’t care about life. It is unbelievable.
“Last year it was very bad and this year it is also very bad. It is the riders’ decision how they want to ride. [But] you never know if tomorrow you can continue in the race. It is like that.”
Sagan is one of the most successful riders in the sport and, as world champion, Tour of Flanders champion and current Maillot Jaune, is someone who could potentially fill the role of patron.
However he doesn’t believe that others would listen to him if he tried to lay down the law in relation to safer racing.
“In this moment I am not an important rider in the peloton because nobody cares,” he said. “I don’t know, it is like everybody loses their brain. I don’t know how to explain what is going on in the group, but there are stupid crashes in the group and [these are] very dangerous. If nobody brakes, then for sure you are going to crash.
“It is not logical things in the group. Before it was respect: when somebody did something stupid everybody maybe threw their bottles at him or beat him with their pumps. But now cycling loses this.”
He said that he has seen things change ever since he turned pro in 2010. “There is no respect in the group. A lot of riders don’t care about others and everybody wants to stay in the train behind their guys. In the last 50 kilometres you have seven trains in the front. Nobody cares about different riders.
“They are in the front and [there are] also a lot of guys who don’t know how to go on the bike [laughs]. Things like that. It is very hard to say now, ‘okay, today I am in yellow, [but] maybe tomorrow I go home.’”
He doesn’t like it, but he accepts that right now this is the way things are.
“This is the Tour de France.”
Contador knows that too and, much as he loves the race, he will rue that fact.