LAGUNA SECA, California (VN) — Will cycling’s self-proclaimed “King of California” go winless in his adopted home state?
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) owns 16 stage victories at the Amgen Tour of California — more than anyone in the race’s 13-year history. In fact, he’s won at least one stage every year he’s participated in the race, going back to 2010. Yet Sagan’s chances at winning a stage in 2018 are rapidly disappearing.
The peloton tackled the race’s third stage on Tuesday, a 197-kilometer slog from King City to the Laguna Seca racetrack outside of Monterey. On paper, Sagan was the favorite to take the victory. He is perhaps the best rider in the world at winning sprints that come after punishing, hilly terrain, and the Laguna Seca stage finishes with a stiff, 20-percent climb within the final kilometers.
When the race finished inside the raceway two years ago, Sagan sprung to victory ahead of perennial rival Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing).
A Sagan repeat was not meant to be on Tuesday, as Latvian rider Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) stretched a late-stage breakaway into a winning move. The peloton appeared to have Skujins in its grasp on several occasions, which would have set Sagan up to sprint against the tired peloton. Yet Skujins held the charging peloton at bay over the final climb, and then descended to the win.
After the stage, Sagan said a variety of factors contributed to the failed chase.
“There was wind. I think a lot of riders from the back came back the last kilometer and a half,” Sagan said. “I was also tired in the end. I saw the first guys already finished the climb and we were already in the climb. I tried to close the gap by me alone but it was also a little bit impossible.”
Sagan now faces the real chance that he will leave California without a victory. Just two sprint stages remain in this year’s tour: Thursday’s stage from Stockton to Elk Grove and Saturday’s final stage around downtown Sacramento. Could Sagan win? Perhaps. Both stages feature pancake-flat profiles that cater more toward the peloton’s traditional heavy sprinters such as Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan, and Alexander Kristoff. Conventional wisdom says each of these men hold a slight advantage over Sagan on flat roads.
And then there’s Fernando Gaviria, the Colombian sprinting ace who won the opening stage in Long Beach. Gaviria has the fastest kick of anyone at this year’s Tour of California, and his Quick-Step Floors leadout train has more horsepower and cunning than the other teams. Gaviria is the obvious favorite to win in Elk Grove and Sacramento.
There’s also the race’s challenging penultimate stage, which climbs from Folsom up to South Lake Tahoe and includes more than 10,000 feet of total ascending. Sagan has shown glimmers of that climbing ability in the past, however the final soaring climb to Daggett Summit is nearly 13 kilometers long at a 6.1 percent gradient. That’s probably too long for Sagan to survive.
“I could be very happy if I win some stage here,” Sagan said. “If not, I am happy to be here, to have good training, and to visit California and have a good stay here.”
After the race ends, Sagan plans to train in Utah for the Tour de France.
Team Sagan repeated this sentiment earlier in the week. Sagan’s coach Patxi Vila said the California race is as much about training for the Tour de France as it is victories. Sure, it would be nice to win a stage. However, the California race has a different place within the team’s annual schedule.
“It is the first race for most of the guys here after the classics,” Vila said. “It’s very important for us, and it’s nice to be back in California. It’s the starting point where we see our fitness and what we need to do to get in shape for the Tour.”
Thus far, Sagan has met these tests with passing grades. He was a close third to Gaviria and Ewan in Long Beach. He had the legs to stay with the peloton up the steep climb to Laguna Seca and still finish fourth in the sprint.
Sagan’s team may be another story. On Tuesday, Bora’s domestiques did plenty of work during the hilly stage. However, Sagan’s top helpers were nowhere to be found in the final chase to the line. No worries — Sagan tipped his cap to his teammates after the finish.
“They did a good ride for me,” he said.