Peter Sagan repaid his Cannondale team for a tough chase on Saturday, winning stage 7 of the Amgen Tour of California.
The usual clockwork catch of the day’s break came a bit unsprung near the end of the 142km stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena, as Ben King (Garmin-Sharp) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) declined to surrender to the inevitable and a few entrepreneurs tried to deny the sprinters their day.
But in the end it was Sagan free-lancing his way forward through the corners of the finishing circuit, past former world champion Thor Hushovd (BMC) and Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing) to take his first win of this year’s tour.
“Finally, I got another,” said Sagan, who holds the tour’s green jersey. “I’m very happy for this victory for the team. For Cannondale it’s very important.”
Stage 7 saw an early break containing King and Van Avermaet; Chad Haga (Giant-Shimano); Eloy Teruel (Jamis-Sutter Home); Lars Boom (Belkin); Luis Davila (Jelly Belly); and Isaac Bolivar (UnitedHealthcare).
“We had a good strong group in the breakaway,” said King. “It was not easy to go in the breakaway today. Yesterday was a very hard day so there were a lot of guys on the limit. Just constant attacking for a long time.”
As the escapees’ gap ticked down to two minutes, Bolivar attacked the break, and King, Haga and Van Avermaet stuck with him. Boom rejoined on a descent preceding the main drop to Pasadena.
Behind, Cannondale had four men on the front for Sagan. Race leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky) was enjoying a free ride.
“We knew Cannondale were going to ride for the stage win,” Wiggins said. “They were getting pretty desperate.” With no Cannondales in the break, he added, it was the signal for his hard-working Sky guys “to switch off.”
On the final descent to Pasadena the numbers began to tell, and with 34km to go the leaders had but a half-minute’s advantage.
“It was very fast running down the descent to the finish. You had to stay concentrated,” Wiggins said. “I couldn’t really relax until I crossed the line. On the circuit, there could be a small split or a crash, so you have to ride at the front.”
Hitting the finishing circuit in Pasadena the break was down to King and Van Avermaet, who had about 20 seconds over the Cannondale-led peloton.
Going into the second of three laps the escapees’ advantage had been slashed in half as Sky contributed horsepower to the chase. Sagan and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) were both in the bunch, as were Taylor Phinney and Hushovd.
“With two laps to go, when they said we had 20 seconds, I thought it was doomed,” said King. “We didn’t have a time check for 50 kilometers — the last we heard we had two minutes. So we were surprised when it went down so fast.”
Heading into bell lap Javier Mendes (NetApp-Endura) bridged to the leaders and went straight to the front to push the pace, but that came to naught. Then the finale grew slightly chaotic, with opportunists trying to outfox the sprinters — one Jamis-Sutter Home rider who thought the race was done punched it and launched a victory celebration one lap too early. Then Janier Acevedo (Garmin) had a go, a climber trying to sucker the fast-twitch men.
But Cannondale had worked too hard to be denied. Sagan slipped into fifth wheel before the penultimate corner, and as Hushovd began his sprint too soon, it was the young Slovak taking his first win of this year’s Amgen tour ahead of Hushovd and Van Poppel — and making it look absurdly easy.
Said teammate Cameron Wurf: “Of course, the team rode for the win the other day, and of course, Taylor was a bit too good. But today, the same plan. Peter is such a great captain. When he puts his troops to work, 9.9 times out of 10, he finishes it off. It’s pretty easy as a team to motivate yourself and do as he asks, and everyone did, and yeah, voilà!”
Wiggins retained the overall lead with one stage remaining. Rohan Dennis (Garmin) remains second at 30 seconds down with Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano) third at 1:48.
• It was Van Avermaet’s birthday, and he had been hoping to give himself a little present. “I had a good guy in Ben King with me and he was perfect. We tried to stay on the front for as long as possible,” he said. “It was my birthday today, so I wanted to do something and have a good moment.”
• Though this race isn’t over yet, Wiggins is already looking forward, toward the Tour de France. The Tour starts in Britain this year, and he’d very much like to be a part of it. But he added: “It’s very much Chris (Froome)’s team. It depends on who he wants around him. We have such a deep team. I’ve been on the path for Roubaix and this, and I haven’t really known what would come after this. I’d love to be on the start in Britain, I’ve love be on that too. But it’s about Chris being confident in the team.”