Photo-finish win for Peter Sagan in stage 16 of Tour de France
Team Sky’s Chris Froome was in the leading pack to ensure he keeps the yellow jersey
Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, wearing the best sprinter’s green jersey, wins the 209 km sixteenth stage of the 103rd edition of the Tour de France. Photograph: Getty Images
Fabian Cancellara’s contribution to cycling has been substantial enough for the Tour organisers to give him what amounted to his own personal stage finish in the Swiss capital in the final Grande Boucle of his career, but there was no fairytale ending for the 35-year-old.
Instead, the stage win in Cancellara’s home town went to the rider who has succeeded “Spartacus” as the man to beat in cobbled one-day races, Peter Sagan, who threw his bike at the line in dramatic style to pip another man of the Classics, Alexander Kristoff. For the third time this year, the stage came down to a photo finish.
The sheer breadth of Cancellara’s register is what has made him such a key figure in recent years. His professional career goes back almost 14 years. He has won the Tour prologue three times, plus a longer time-trial opener in Monaco in 2009, which has enabled him to wear the yellow jersey as recently as last year, and for a total of 29 days, placing him 12th in the all-time list.
On top of that, the former cross-country skier has taken world and Olympic time-trial titles, and three victories each in two of the greatest Classics, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. At times has also shown himself as a successor to the likes of Bernard Hinault or Eddy Merckx as a leader within the peloton, for example when the 2010 Tour was hit by a spate of crashes on a descent in the Ardennes.
As so often happens when a rider is on the way out, his farewell Tour has not matched the hype, and his principal contribution thus far came on the stage to Montpellier, when he swung over to the left to create the gap that enabled Chris Froome and Sagan to escape the remains of the peloton 10 kilometres from the finish. That in itself is a reflection of his waning ability, as the Cancellara of old would probably have formed that move.
He was sixth here yesterday, reflecting the fact that he has been overtaken by a new generation led by Sagan, and the bulk of the top 10 was formed by current Classics specialists: Kristoff and his fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen, John Degenkolb of Germany, the Belgians Sep Vanmarcke and Greg Van Avermaet.
They headed a select group of 33, after the field split on a tough run-in with more than a soupçon of spring Classic about it: a cobbled hill, curve after curve and a tricky little descent. Reflecting his current form and high morale, Mark Cavendish also figured, in a finish which did not suit him on paper.
Chris Froome and all the top 17 men overall were safely in there, but the fact that riders began dropping off the pace five kilometres out, finishing up to 12 minutes down, reflected that for many of the 183 survivors the second rest day today will be more than welcome.
The temperature topped 30°C again, and the stage was run off at close to 30mph, as the peloton kept close tabs on a two-man escape. Culoz’s unlucky hero from Sunday, Julian Alaphilippe, was not a threat, but the German time-trial specialist Tony Martin could be given no latitude at all.
Sagan’s third stage win in this Tour boiled down to how he timed the moment when he “threw” his bike to the line perfectly. As he explained afterwards, when the bike is “thrown” the rider pulls it back slightly before launching it forwards – it has to be understood that this is all relative when man and machine are travelling at 40mph – and whereas the Slovak gauged his throw to gain a little extra impetus, Kristoff actually slowed himself down on the line.
The Norwegian looked to his right as Sagan came up to him, and his despairing punch of the handlebars made it clear he knew who had won. The day before, Katusha had placed their young Russian Ilnur Zakarin in the winning escape, where he looked stronger than the stage winner Jarlinson Pantano, but was foiled by – of all things – a dislodged contact lens which left him blind in one eye on the final descent.
This has been a torrid couple of days for Russia’s flagship team, but their woes are hardly the biggest concern in their homeland at present. Kristoff’s desperation probably reflected something else: Katusha are one of 13 teams who have yet to win a stage in the Tour, while Sagan and Cavendish have accounted for seven between them. Eleven of those teams have won less than €20,000 prize money to date, and with only five stages remaining, time is rapidly running out.
Sagan put his success, after a long run of near misses, down to “destiny” but more concretely it has compensated for the loss of his team’s other leader, Alberto Contador, though injury. His previous stage victories had prompted his team sponsor, the eccentric oligarch Oleg Tinkov, who has turned into one of cycling’s larger than life figures, to speculate that he might go back on his decision to pull out at the end of the year.
Tinkov has been seen stumping around the race finish with a cast on a foot broken while riding his bike, and here he could be seen making gestures at the television cameras afterwards which were hard to interpret but were definitely celebratory. Asked if Tinkov might continue to sponsor him after this latest triumph, Sagan would only say “no one can see inside the head of Oleg”.
What goes on in Sagan’s mind is almost as unpredictable but his fifth successive green jersey in the Tour is pretty much in the bag.