Lee’s Lowdown: Superman Sagan!
Lowdown: By winning the 2016 World elite road championships, Peter Sagan has bolstered his reputation as the best riders in the peloton at the moment… and moving him towards the title of one of the best ever. Lee Rodgers dissects the Doha championships and gives us his lowdown on ‘THE’ race of the year and the characters of the battle.
“I have a T-shirt for you Peter!” said the slightly disturbing woman at the end of Sunday’s men’s world championship road race in Doha.
“Uh, what?” asked a visibly bemused Sagan, no doubt thinking that whatever garment she was about to pull out of her handbag would have to be pretty darn special to beat the ‘T-shirt’ he was about to receive on the top spot of the podium.
“But mine has unicorns on it!” she should have shouted as he walked off, but, unfortunately, did not.
What was indicative of that quirky moment was that it tells us so much about the appeal of Peter Sagan to the cycling public. Anyone that has hung around the start line of big professional races will tell you that. Though the athletes are often within touching distance (which is just about unique in the world of modern sport), there is a kind of invisible barrier between many of them and the fans, which is understandable, as they are about to head off into 180km of intense focus and a truckload of suffering. However, I’ve seen some take it too far and ignore their fans altogether, not even being bothered to give people who have been waiting for an hour and more outside of their team bus a wave.
Yet with Sagan, you get the feeling that he is actually having the time of his life being a professional bike rider – imagine that! We get none of the surliness and aggressive attitude of some of the other top men in the sport. Take that touching moment when his two teammates came into the interviewing area to congratulate him, one being his brother and the other Michael Kolar.
Sagan jumped up to accept their hugs and handshakes, thanking them for their hard work, with Kolar unable it seemed to quite comprehend that Sagan could possibly have just doubled up at the World Championships.
“He is the King,” he said, shaking his head, and who could disagree with that summation, after Sagan’s stellar year in the hoops?
They talked about finding a place to party in Doha, and I’ll bet that they did, and I’ll also bet that they’re still recovering…
One thing we should clear up once and for all is that this was not, as some commentators are saying, an exciting race. Sure, it was better than what was expected, a trundle to the one with all the big guns there still there at the end, but without that whipping wind that saw the French and the Germans get totally caught out, it would have been as beige as the sand that carpets great swathes of that region.
What it was though, was a proper hard race, a classic day of racing in the desert that, thanks to the driving train of the Dutch and the Belgians, had a northern European flavor to it. I’ve raced in winds exactly like that, in the Tour of Qatar in 2012 in fact, and I know too exactly how Andre Greipel was feeling as he dangled just four bike lengths off the back of that first echelon. You feel like a man thrown overboard in a raging storm, swimming against massive waves to try to reach a rope hanging off the back of your ship as it moves agonizingly away from you. It hurts, in so many ways. And, as we saw, once you drop off you are lost. There is no way back.
One rider who could not handle the desperation of his situation was John Degenkolb of Germany, who totally lost it with Jens Debusschere of Belgium. I’ve seen stuff like that before in races but for it to happen at the World’s because a trade teammate of your leader, who rides for a different country and has his countrymen up the road, is not riding to bring them back, was quite ridiculous. Debusschere, for his part, would in my book have been quite justified in pulling Degenkolb off his bike and giving him a clip round the ear.
On to Mark Cavendish, the happy chappy of professional cycling. What a well balanced athlete he is, with those two hefty chips delicately balanced on each shoulder. He looked around for someone to blame as he crossed the line in second place and there is little doubt, re-watching the finish, that he had the straight line speed to win. However, he could not find a straight line after spending his time watching Sagan’s wheel and ignoring the stellar approach work being done by his teammate Adam Blythe.
Cavendish was understandably unhappy, but if I was Blythe I’d be pretty peeved that I’d worked so hard for all that to see my man come in second when he was the fastest in the race.
What is not really being mentioned however is the ride Sagan put in to get to the line. I raced alongside (well, kind of!) Sagan that year in Qatar and I remember being amazed by the way he would slip through the peloton, riding through ‘gaps’ that were never gaps in the first place. He did the same at the finish in Doha. At the end he spoke of almost being brought down by the man in front of him, saying that had the Italian (Nizzolo) switched his line they would certainly have crashed as “there was no way I was going to brake.”
I loved that line, proper warrior stuff!
All that being said, for me Cavendish’s team made a blunder arguably as big as him being badly positioned in the finale when he lost his powerhouse teammates in the crosswinds. What chance anyone else if he’d had Ian Standard and Geraint Thomas there at the end too? With a lead-out train like that he’d have almost certainly had a clear run to the line and we’d be talking about him taking two rainbow jerseys instead of Sagan, in all likelihood.
But, this is bike racing, and this was the World Championships, the rolling classic that moves from town to town, city to city, continent to continent and is always – yes, even in the desert – totally engrossing due to the fact of what is on the table for the winner.
It’s an entire year in the most beautiful jersey, not just in cycling but in all sport. We have just been treated to one of the best year’s in living memory for last year’s champion, and now, quite remarkably, we will be treated to another.
Lee Rodgers is a former professional road racer on the UCI Asia Tour circuit now racing MTB professionally around the world. His day job combines freelance journalism, coaching cyclists, event organizing and consulting work. You can keep up with his daily scribblings over at www.crankpunk.com.
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