Sagan’s nearly great escape

Peter Sagan electrifies the Rio Olympics mountain bike race. But untimely flat tires leave fans wondering whether he'd have nabbed a medal in the Games.

RIO DE JANEIRO (VN) — The start list said it all in Sunday’s men’s Olympics cross-country mountain bike race.

On the front line were the five-star favorites: Two-time Olympic champion Julien Absalon, defending Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy, and soon-to-be Olympic champion Nino Schurter, where they were supposed to be. In last place was uninvited party-crasher Peter Sagan, ranked 900th in a sport that he hadn’t competed in at the highest level since he won a world junior title seven years ago. Sagan was so far off the back, figuratively and literally, he was the lone rider in a line all by himself — start line number seven — behind riders from Guam, Rwanda, Hong Kong, and Lesotho. It was a fitting symbol of just how unlikely the race was going to be.

The stage was set for what could have been the biggest worst-to-first upset in Olympics cycling history. Road cycling’s ultimate showman was trying to snatch the gold medal away from the specialists who had dedicated the past four years of their lives preparing for a shot at Olympic glory.

Not everyone believed it. Whispers were going around Sunday morning that Sagan was looking tentative in training runs, and that he had even crashed in one of the rock gardens. And in a sport where start position is nearly as important as in Formula 1, more than a few insiders expected Sagan to be bogged down in traffic, unable to get to the nose of the race, even if he had the legs to challenge the favorites.

Before the race, Sagan admitted as much, “I don’t even know what is going to happen. Maybe more funny.”

And then – boom! – the race was on. And Sagan immediately revealed this was no publicity stunt. He bolted out of the back of the pack like he was sprinting up Oude Kwaremont, and catapulted right into the sharp end of the race. After the 600m start loop, he was already on the eighth wheel. Midway through the first of seven loops on the 4.85km track, Sagan suddenly appeared in a choice group of five leading riders. His incredible start electrified the race.

But just as soon as it started, Sagan’s great escape all but ended. A front tire puncture at the beginning of the second lap saw Sagan soon out the back. Maybe Sagan was racing too aggressively to move up, going off the clean line to pass and got a pinch flat. Or perhaps he missed a line, and hit a rock garden off-kilter. Or maybe it was a Brazilian thorn. Whatever it caused the puncture, Sagan was no longer the thorn in the side of the mountain bike specialists. He gamely rode on, but got another puncture, and eventually was pulled with one lap to go. His official result of 35th only told part of the story of what could have been.

“Baaah, I had two punctures, and some technical problems,” Sagan lamented at the finish line. “The start was very good. After the first lap, I was with the first guys. Race is race. It is always good or bad.”

Sagan’s wrong there; it is always good when he is at the start line. No rider has electrified the road peloton like him in a generation. His attempt at racing for gold on the dirt in Rio confirmed just how audacious he is. His presence at the start line — even in last place — pumped interest into the race.

Some were muttering that Sagan’s gold-medal gamble was little more than a marketing stunt, but they’re wrong. Sure, Specialized’s marketing department was tickled pink to see its rock star on its mountain bike, but the call to race on the dirt was strictly his own.

“I already wanted to race mountain bike in London [2012], but it was not possible because I was also racing the road race,” Sagan said. “The road race was too tough here, so I said, OK, let’s try. Maybe I will race mountain bike again. I don’t know.”

In the end, that race could not have had a more fitting winner. Schurter has dominated mountain biking since the first of his five world titles in 2009, and in many ways, he is the Sagan equivalent on the dirt. Bronze in Beijing and a heartbreaking silver in London, Schurter rode a near-perfect race to drop Kulhavy in the penultimate lap and complete his medal collection.

And let’s admit it. As fun as it was to watch, it would been a bitter pill for the mountain bikers to swallow to watch Sagan poach “their” medal. Of course, Sagan had every right to race, and he there is no questioning his bike-handling chops, but for the MTB purists, Schurter is the more fitting winner.

It’s doubtful Sagan will return to mountain bike anytime soon. His move to Bora for 2017 has him earning an estimated $7.5 million per season, making him the highest-paid rider in the peloton. No sponsor will want him risking injury for a chance to race on the dirt.

And as the Olympic medal begins to have more heft in the road peloton, we are almost sure to see Sagan racing on the pavement in Tokyo 2020. No matter how hard the road course might be, it will certainly be less difficult than what the peloton raced in Rio de Janeiro. Several riders, including Dan Martin, called the Olympic road race the hardest day they ever raced. That’s saying a lot from a rider who’s won Giro di Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After bypassing the road race for mountain bike (a decision he said he does not regret, despite watching Greg Van Avermaet win), Tokyo could be Sagan’s last chance for gold. By then, he will be 31 years old, no longer the wunderkind.

“Maybe I will some other races,” Sagan said Sunday. “But for now, I have to go back on the road.”

Thanks for the try, Peter. We all wish it hadn’t ended so fast, but it was fun watch. And as Sagan put it best, “Race is race. Was like was.”