Peter Sagan’s still got it. Can he use it?

It wasn't the 6th place on stage 2, it was how Peter Sagan got there.

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There is a spark in Peter Sagan. You can see desire in a rider’s pedal strokes, the way they set their shoulders and stake their claim to the wheel in front of them. Sagan’s efforts in the final 1500 meters of Saturday’s chaotic, post-bridge finish, point to a rider who wants something from this Tour de France

It’s been a quiet summer for him. A quiet year, really. The king of the green jersey, seven in total, arrived in Copenhagen to minimal fanfare, his once unique skillset now matched and bettered by youths. Green will be difficult in the Age of Wout, and expectations are low for the once-feared Class of 1990, which is now 32 years old. 

There has been a sense that Sagan’s slow decline is down to motivation as much as changes in physical ability. His talk of switching to mountain biking, stories of late nights in Monaco and altercations with police; these things don’t point to the sort of focus required of today’s peloton, even for a talent of his magnitude. Perhaps he could coast when he was 26 and still win. Now that’s not an option. 

He finished sixth on Saturday, wedged between Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Jeremy Lecroq (B&B Hotels-KTM). Nothing to write home about. But my Tour notebook today is full of Sagan notes because I’m more interested in how he got there than where he ended up.

The perfect wheel

The lay of the land. Sagan is exactly where every sprinter who isn’t named Van Aert or Jakobsen wants to be.

Sagan’s elbows are notoriously sharp. Ask around the peloton and he has a reputation, not always a good one, for going where he pleases and moving other riders around as he wants. In his heyday, part of this was assumed to be ego. He felt untouchable, and he largely was. Crashes didn’t happen to Sagan, Sagan happened to crashes. 

That skillset hasn’t waned, but barging around in the final 1500 meters takes a certain commitment and form he hasn’t always had in recent years. On Saturday, he had both. 

Let’s kick things off with 866 meters to the finish line. The front of the bunch is still sorting itself in the helicopter shot above. It’s unclear whether the right side or the left, or the middle perhaps, will be fastest. But Sagan, without any teammates, doesn’t care. He’s right where he wants to be, right on the wheels the entire peloton wants, sitting behind Wout van Aert and off the right hip of Fabio Jakobsen. 

Hold, hold

Sagan, in white, on Van Aert’s wheel.

Getting there is one thing, staying there is another. Let’s flash forward to 490 meters to go. Sagan (in white) is still on Van Aert’s wheel (in green), with Jakobsen and his train just to the left. Caleb Ewan wants some of that sweet, sweet Quick-Step train draft. He sticks an elbow in. Sagan, his hands just in front of Ewan’s (meaning he has control over the situation), gives him a little pop to the left and back Ewan goes. This moment effectively ended Ewan’s sprint hopes. 

Sagan is still right where he wants to be. He’s fended off a challenger, and the sprint is about to open up. 

The Squeeze

Now it’s on, 225 meters to go. Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven, riding for Mads Pedersen, finishes his pull and Pedersen hits out, a bit too early. Jakobsen and Sagan are fighting in equal terms for Van Aert’s wheel. They need that wheel. That’s their ticket to the finish line. Van Aert charges through and back comes Stuyven after his pull. The gap between Stuyven and Jakobsen is 95% the width of one Peter Sagan. 

Jakobsen doesn’t close the door, but he damn well doesn’t open it. He keeps his line, letting Stuyven do the blocking work for him. Somehow Sagan squeezes through, wriggling his shoulders, while Jakobsen accelerates. 

To be clear, nobody does anything wrong here. This is Tour de France sprinting at its finest. 

You still need the legs

This is where things go sideways, and the reason why Sagan hasn’t racked up wins like he used to comes back into focus. As Jakobsen accelerates, Sagan basically stays put. He’s clear of Stuyven, he’s still in a draft, but he can’t up the pace again to push up alongside Van Aert and Pedersen, and he can’t hold onto Jakobsen as he rockets past. 

This 100 meters is why Jakobsen is the best sprinter in the world right now. 

There are mitigating circumstances though. Any loss of momentum this late is fatal to a sprinter’s chances. Sagan has to lay off the power for a moment during the Stuyven squeeze, and even the world’s best sprinter couldn’t have recouped that loss. 

Sixth on the day is unimpressive on paper. But sprinting is about fight and positioning as much as top speed. There will be days when Jakobsen messes up, or Wout does, or they both do.

I see desire in those pedal strokes, and the way he sets his shoulders. There is fight in the old dog yet. 

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