ONTARIO, California (VN) — Barring disaster, Peter Sagan will stand on the overall podium of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California on Sunday in Pasadena. But which step will the Slovakian national champion stand upon?
The Tinkoff-Saxo rider surpassed all expectations on the steep slopes of Mount Baldy Saturday, nearly preserving his 45-second lead over young French phenom Julian Aliphilippe (Etixx-Quick-Step), who won the stage and now leads the race by the slimmest of margins — just two seconds.
Sagan stayed within himself and fought all the way across the line to stay within 47 seconds of Aliphillipe; he finished sixth on the stage, ahead of top climbers like Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) and Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo).
It was a performance that was as phenomenal as it was unexpected. On Friday, after joking that he’d won on the last-minute 10km time trial course at Magic Mountain because the race organization had “designed a course just for me,” Sagan said that the only way he could stay in yellow on Saturday was if the race organizers would, again, “design a course just for me.”
The final stage of the race is short — just 65 miles. And with bonus time on offer at one intermediate sprint as well as the stage 8 finish line, Sagan is very much the favorite to win the overall.
The intermediate sprint, which comes at the end of the first of nine three-mile circuits in Pasadena, offers bonus time of three, two, and one seconds to the top three across the line, while the final sprint offers ten, six, and four seconds to the first three finishers.
Though Alaphillipe’s teammate Mark Cavendish has proven to be the fastest sprinter in this race, winning every field sprint he’s contested, Sagan also won a reduced bunch sprint, twice finished second to Cavendish, and once finished third, proving he’s the next-best sprinter in the field.
Most importantly, Sagan doesn’t need to beat Cavendish to win the overall — he simply needs to pick up enough bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint or finish in the top three at the finish, and he needs to finish ahead of Alaphillipe as well.
And while it’s a safe assumption that Cavendish will win both sprints, it may be, in some ways, a moot point — there are 16 other teams in this race, and it’s likely a breakaway will go clear, something Etixx will very much encourage. But even if a breakaway should gobble up the intermediate sprint bonus time, Sagan would still only need to finish second or third in the final sprint (and ahead of Alaphilippe).
What’s certain is that the Etixx leadout train, and specifically Cavendish’s leadout man Mark Renshaw, will be on high alert Sunday; they will be, literally, “defending the jersey,” with everything on the line in one final, frenetic day of racing.
However there is no guarantee that Sagan will still have the legs to sprint at his best after smashing the 10km time trial at Magic Mountain on Friday, and then climbing out of his mind on Mt. Baldy on Saturday. The toll of those efforts was apparent as he crossed the line on Baldy, as he nearly collapsed, and was wheezing heavily for several long seconds.
“I wanted to be in the front in order to secure my position in the GC as much as I could, in view of Sunday’s fast stage,” Sagan said. “I did my best and everything will now be decided in the sprints. We will aim at the overall victory.”
And while it might be a stretch to say that Alaphilippe’s post-race comments were conceding defeat, it certainly sounded as though he realizes that fending off Sagan will be a difficult task, bordering on impossible.
“It won’t be easy to defend my position,” Alaphilippe said. “It is clear Sagan is faster than me, so we will see tomorrow what will happen. I don’t want to put pressure on myself for the GC.
“For the stage, I think we have to go with our original plan to try and win with Mark. He’s won three stages already and is going really well. Then we will see if we can defend the yellow jersey. If not, it won’t be the end of the world. We have won four stages here so far out of seven. I had the best young rider jersey going into this stage, and Mark has the points jersey. So, we’ve already done plenty here, and we are simply trying to add to what we’ve already accomplished. The 2015 Amgen Tour of California will be a race I never forget.”
The same could be said for Sagan if he takes the overall win, which would be the most significant GC victory in a palmares that has primarily consisted of stage wins, points jerseys, and spring classics victories such as Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke (he has two overall stage race wins, both in 2011, at the Giro di Sardegna and Tour of Poland).
It’s certain Sagan will stand on the GC podium in Pasadena. Will it be on the top step? Smart money says yes.