RENNES, France (VN) — Peter Sagan started Saturday’s eighth stage second overall, just 11 seconds out of the yellow jersey, second in the green jersey hunt, and donning the white jersey as the best young rider. And there’s a very good chance he will end the stage earning the points jersey he’s won three years in a row.
On any other team, Sagan would be the center of gravity. A week into the 2015 Tour de France, however, Tinkoff-Saxo is sticking to its “yellow jersey” plan.
Despite a spectacular start by the Slovakian sensation, finishing second or third in five of the opening seven stages, Tinkoff-Saxo will race to the Mur de Bretagne the same way it’s raced every stage of the 2015 Tour de France: all for Alberto Contador.
“It’s the same strategy since the beginning of the Tour. Nothing’s changed,” Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Sean Yates told VeloNews. “Peter has the chance for the sprints, but the team is riding to protect Alberto.”
That has been crystal clear all week long, as Tinkoff is not assigning anyone to help Sagan in the sprints. The team has remained committed to protecting Contador’s flanks, who is attempting to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour in the same year, and leaving Sagan to freelance in the stage finales.
So far, the strategy is working. Sagan is free-wheeling his way around the peloton, and Contador enters this weekend seventh overall, 36 seconds behind Chris Froome (Sky).
“Since day one, the number one goal has been the yellow jersey. Peter knows that, and he knows the focus is on Alberto,” Yates continued. “Peter is happy with the situation. We’ve never seen him stressed. He knows he’s getting good results. That win is eluding him, as it did last year in the Tour, but it’s always going to be hard to beat guys like Cavendish or the top sprinters. He’s in the hunt. It’s only a matter of time.”
So far, it appears Sagan is content with playing second fiddle. He unselfishly followed team orders in stage 4 across the cobbles, riding to guide Contador across the pavé instead of following possible, race-breaking accelerations. He still ended up third on the stage, but he never left Contador’s side until the group came in for the sprint.
“It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but it will come,” Sagan said Friday after taking third. “The most important is that I am in good condition, and I have avoided crashes. I will definitely try again.”
Less pressure, happy Sagan
In many ways, having Contador in the limelight takes a lot of pressure off Sagan’s shoulders. He certainly looks more relaxed, especially in contrast to the spring classics, when the media were piling on about when he was going to win a big one. He’s been joking with journalists, and even hamming it up with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the mixed zone.
“He’s flying since California. He’s back to his old self. He was the strongest at Le Havre, but everyone was looking at him,” Yates continued. “He’s been doing great, and it’s a shame he hasn’t won a stage yet, but he’s been picking up points every day.”
Going into stage 9, Sagan was second behind André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) in the points standings, 199-187 (see standings below).
Yellow comes first
As the team has said from the beginning, if Sagan wins the green jersey, great; he doesn’t, well, that’s great, too.
“The most important thing is the yellow jersey. Alberto is the priority,” Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Stephen De Jongh said. “If Peter can try to win the stage, that’s nice. If he gets a few wins, maybe the green jersey comes to Peter. If the green jersey comes to Peter, that’s nice, but we’re not going to pull for the sprints for Peter. The first goal is the yellow.”
Sagan’s solid first week has also revived the debate about whether or not yellow jersey aspirations can accommodate anything other individual ambitions. In the past, the yellow jersey/green jersey confab hasn’t always worked out. Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel struggled to find a balance during the Telekom years, as did Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans in the mid-2000s.
Sagan, however, is a unique rider, who is not a pure sprinter, yet can win in a variety of scenarios. He’s here at the Tour without a leadout train, yet he’s almost beaten the pure sprinters without any help at all.
“They’re both such fantastic athletes, maybe the team can do both,” Yates said of the yellow and green jersey combo. “Peter is not a pure sprinter, but he’s got incredible speed.”
Mountains favor Sagan
The storyline could change once the race enters the brutal final half, packed with mountain stages, where Sagan should suffer less than the pure sprinters. As it stands now, the fight for the green jersey is a four-horse race, but many are wondering how long the pure sprinters will stick around. Depending on how the race unfolds, there might not be another sprint until the Champs-Élysées.
There could be chances for mass gallops in stages 13 and 15, but it will be hard for the peloton to control breakaways so deep into the Tour. Both Etixx-Quick-Step and Katusha will have GC options to consider as well, with Rigoberto Urán and Joaquim Rodríguez, respectively, so there might not be a lot of teams interested or with the horsepower to chase down stage-hunters.
The quest for points should go deep into the Alps. The way the intermediate sprints are stacked up, placed before each day’s major climbs, even pure sprinters such as Greipel or Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) should be able to contest for points. If the sprinters gut through the climbs, the battle for green could go all the way down to the final sprint in Paris.
Yates hinted that Sagan could see more support in the second half of the Tour. That would be especially true if Contador’s yellow jersey hopes evaporate in the mountains.
“Once we get past the Pyrénées, we enter some terrain that’s more favorable to Peter, and if he’s still in it, maybe we’ll put more emphasis on it,” Yates said. “Right now, it’s all about Alberto.”
So far, that plan is working just fine for Sagan. After winning three green jerseys in a row, Sagan will go down swinging to keep his streak alive, help or no help.
Points standings at start of stage 8
1. André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), 199 points
2. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), 187
3. Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step), 151
4. John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), 148
5. Bryan Coquard (Europcar), 96