LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — Believe the hype.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) won his first Tour de France stage — in his first-ever Tour de France start — with a well-timed sprint to overcome Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan).
Cancellara attacked up stage 1’s sharp finishing ramp, but Sagan was able to hang on to Spartacus and nail him on the line.
The win is instant confirmation at the highest level of the sport for Sagan, who won five stages at the Amgen Tour of California and four at the Tour de Suisse, but had yet to prove himself on cycling’s greatest stage. He did so on his first opportunity.
The stakes couldn’t be higher than they are right now for the 22-year-old prodigy, but he remains the same funny, excitable rider. He crossed the finish line and celebrated with some move that appeared to be a riff on the Funky Chicken. It was a gesture that he and his friend thought would be funny. They made it up one day while sitting on a couch.
“It’s just for fun,” he said after the race. Just for fun? The Tour de France?
Sunday’s win marks the 14th of the year for Sagan, and his biggest ever. He’s the youngest to win a stage since Lance Armstrong in 1993. Asked if he was hoping to follow in the Texan’s (very large) footsteps, Sagan said he’d just wait and see.
“I would like to,” he told reporters. “But to be so strong, I don’t know. Being so young now, it’s impossible to know what my future will be. And we will see. I think we have plenty of time to see that.”
Sagan said he noted the differences between the Tour and other races, but if he was under pressure, it was hard to tell.
“I feel the difference. Only because the presence of the public, the numbers, all the journalists who are waiting for us after the finishing line. And during the race, you see that there is a difference, because we are riding faster than the other races,” he said.
“There’s a lot of pressure in the bunch in the last kilometers because everybody wanted to be in front for the finish. But it’s not so important. I have 19 stages to discover the Tour. So it’s good like that.”
Yes, it’s good like that, if you’re on a tear. Sagan could win more sprint stages here, in addition to the mid-level mountain stages. There’s no telling what he could do.
The quality of the win will surely come into question. Sagan glommed onto Cancellara’s wheel and never pulled through but for the line. Still, it could be more of an indictment of Spartacus’ tactical plan than a knock against Sagan. The big Swiss lost Milan-San Remo in similar fashion to Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).
“I tried to get Sagan to come through to do some work, I think we could have gained time, but he wouldn’t, just like in Milano-San Remo. During the race I asked him to put a teammate up in the front to pull but he claimed he wasn’t sure he had the legs today,” Cancellara said on the team’s website.
“I know how it is in your first Tour de France. It’s always difficult. But attacking and then stopping and ending up somewhere in the back is not my style. When I go, I like to really go and put the hammer down.”
RadioShack-Nissan director sportif Alain Gallopin said he knew the climb wouldn’t be a problem for Cancellara, but wasn’t caught off guard when the young Liquigas sprinter was there, too.
“I’m not surprised,” he told VeloNews at the team busses. “What I saw yesterday is that he’s strong.”
Sean Yates, director at Team Sky, had high praise for Sagan.
“He’s a phenomenon,” he told VeloNews after the finish. “We’ve seen that since he turned up in Tour Down Under in 2010, when he was in that breakaway in the criterium the day before the race starts. Everyone said, ‘Who is this guy?’ Then he came up and won that stage in Paris-Nice and he’s been motoring ever since then.
“He’s a guy who can win classics like Flanders all the way to Liège someday. His limits are yet to be discovered.”
And that, it seems, is something everyone can agree upon.