One of the most precocious talents in cycling, Peter Sagan, came of age when he won the first stage of his first Tour de France on Sunday.
At 22, the Slovakian had already impressed the cycling world since his two stage wins in Paris-Nice two years ago, but the victory over 198km from Liege to Seraing, Belgium, was career-topping and probably the first of a long list of Tour successes.
Sagan, the youngest winner of a Tour de France stage since Lance Armstrong in 1993, was the only rider capable of taking the wheel of Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara when the prologue winner attacked on the steep final climb leading to the finish line.
One of the fastest sprinters in the bunch, the Slovakian powered to the line in front of the Olympic time-trial champion, who retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey.
“It’s a good day. I knew that Cancellara would attack on the finale and I just tried to follow him. He was riding so fast that I could not take turns, I had to wait for the final stretch to overtake him,” Sagan told reporters.
Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, like Sagan more of a strong finisher than a pure sprinter, managed to catch up with the two escapees in the final kilometer, but he had to be content with third place.
“I told myself the best defense was to attack,” race leader Cancellara said. “I’m not a sprinter, so I decided to move from afar, but there was nothing I could do in the final 10 meters.”
The Swiss won a stage with the yellow jersey in 2007 and he pledged to try again on today’s third stage to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, a hilly ride suiting his qualities.
“I’d first love to take the yellow jersey into France and then hopefully hold it until the first mountain stage in La Planche des Belles Filles,” he said.
While the yellow jersey positions hardly moved, Briton Bradley Wiggins being content with staying out of trouble to retain his second place — seven seconds behind the leader — Sagan emerged as a very serious contender for the sprinters’ green jersey.
“This is a good start,” he said, especially as Briton Mark Cavendish, the green jersey winner last year, was dropped on the final climb, finishing 2 minutes, 7 seconds adrift.
Sagan had a point to prove after slipping up in Saturday’s prologue, losing precious time when his foot skidded off the pedals and he narrowly avoided crashing.
“Yesterday, I was already happy not to crash, but it was not a prologue for me, more for the real time-trial specialists like Cancellara or Wiggins. Today was much better, obviously,” Sagan said.
He chuckled when it was suggested he might be heading in the same direction as seven-time Tour champion Armstrong.
“Oh my God, I would love it to be true, but I’m only at the start of my career. We’ll see where it leads me,” he said.
In spite of a fantastic season, which saw him win five stages on the Tour of California and four on the recent Tour de Suisse, Sagan acknowledged the Tour de France was a whole different experience.
“You can tell it’s a race like no other. There are so many people on the roadside, so many media, the race goes much faster, there is more stress heading towards the finish. I must learn to get used to it,” he said.
The second stage takes the peloton from Vise to Tournai, Belgium, over 207.5km.