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VALENCE, France (VN) — Peter Sagan looked to be outgunned in the finale of Friday’s 13th stage of the Tour de France, a flat and fast 169.5km journey from Le Bourg-d’Oisans to Valence. French sprinter Arnaud Démare had two of his Groupama-FDJ teammates on the front; John Degenkolb had Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo); even Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) had a teammate to pull him to the line.
Sagan, as he so often does, outmaneuvered his rivals in the frantic kick to the line. A well-timed surge netted Sagan his third stage win of this Tour de France, ahead of Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ). The ease by which Sagan overcame the odds begged the question: does Sagan even need teammates to propel him to victory?
The answer, of course, is yes. It’s just that Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe teammates do not function like a traditional sprinting unit, due to the strength and smarts of their captain.
“It’s not a team like a traditional [Mario] Cipollini-style lead-out team,” said Patxi Vila, Sagan’s coach and Bora-Hansgrohe’s sports director. “He needs guys to get him onto the right wheel, to simply get him into the right position for the last k. Then it’s up to him.”
Borah-Hansgrohe entered the 2018 Tour de France with two goals: Sagan would target stage wins and Rafal Majka the general classification. The team brought powerful all-rounders Pawel Polijanski, Lukas Postelberger, and Gregor Mulberger to chase down breakaways on flat and rolling terrain. For the sprints, the team also brought three designated teammates to assist Sagan: Marcus Burghardt, Maciej Bodnar, and Daniel Oss.
The three riders are akin to NFL linemen of the pro peloton. Bodnar is one of the best time trial riders in the WorldTour, and Burghardt and Oss are two of the best riders on the heavy cobblestones of Belgium and Northern France. Bora-Hansgrohe’s strategy for Sagan begins at 10km to the finish, when Burghardt and Bodnar surge ahead of the Slovakian sprinter to bring him near the front of the peloton, without him riding in the wind.
Somewhere between 5km and 3km to go, Oss then takes charge. The powerful Italian puts in a fast, sprinting effort to help Sagan maintain his positioning into the final kilometer.
Oss, 31, said the effort required to propel Sagan to the front of the group feels like a sprint. And navigating the chaotic dynamics of those critical kilometers requires instinct and determination.
“Peter always said we are like artists because we have to ride on instinct,” Oss said. “The important thing is I keep him near the front and out of those critical points like a crash—I look for holes to take him through. It is [an effort] that is close to the sprinter maximum. You have to be strong enough to cover him from the wind.”
Thus far Bora-Hansgrohe’s sprint strategy has delivered: Sagan already owns three stage wins and is the favorite to win the stage 21 sprint on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Vila said that spirits on the Bora-Hansgrohe team bus are exceptionally high at this year’s Tour. In part, Vila said, it’s because Sagan’s teammates are also his friends.
“Peter is very comfortable here on the team and that makes training and racing easier,” Vila said. “Everyone is behind Peter.”
That’s not to say Bora’s job is easy. Postlberger, 26, said the lead out man duties are more difficult than one might expect. Sagan’s famed bike-handling skills give him a major advantage in the course’s twists and turns. That’s why Sagan often embarks on the final hectic push to the line by himself. The team must simply get him into a fighting position.
“Peter likes to set himself because he wants to choose his way to the finish,” Postlberger said. “Peter has a different style of riding. He accelerates out of the corners different.”
After his victory in Valence, Sagan gave credit to his team. Yes, he was somewhat isolated in the final push to the line. But the team rode the front for much of the day, helped chase down the day’s breakaway, and made sure he stayed out of trouble in the final few kilometers.
“I found myself in the last kilometer pretty far back—maybe 20th or 25th place,” Sagan said. “I just started to sprint to the front and I took Kristoff’s wheel for maybe the last 500 meters.”
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?