One of the last days for the fastmen and they throw everything at it: The Tour de France 2020, Stage 11
Oh Peter. Peter, Peter, Peter...
You’re not that rider. The rider who cares about winning so much that he’ll dive through a door that’s practically closed, slamming it open with no regard for whomever is on the other side. No, you’re the rider who will voluntarily give up a win for himself - even one at the Tour de France - so that a team-mate might put one on his own palmarès. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t always work, but we’ve seen you try and when it comes to something like that, it really is the thought that counts. You’re the rider who ultimately knows that there are more important things than where you finish in a bike race.
Yesterday, though, that wasn’t who you were. You were the rider who wanted to win at all costs. We’re just relieved that there was no actual damage done, that no-one went down, but also that the penalty to you was no worse than a relegation. Because a bike race without Peter Sagan is less of a bike race, and that counts double for the Tour de France.
We should probably accept that there will be no normal days at this Tour. There might be moments to catch your breath but there will not be extended periods where we can escape and properly relax.
Even when the better part of nothing was happening yesterday we had the sight of Gregor Mühlberger, hanging off the back of the peloton, clearly in no small amount of discomfortant. An unhappy image in normal times, in these ones it’s only natural to allow our imaginations to extrapolate from that, to ask questions about who he might be rooming with, and whether this could signify an existential threat to the entire race.
Then there are crashes, part of cycling as crying is part of love, Johan Museeuw tells us, which seem to adopt an even greater significance. Sam Bewley’s exit on Tuesday from his first Tour de France at the age of 33 was tough to take. When the broadcasters yesterday gave us live footage of Ion Izagirre bleeding by the side of the road, as his loyal team-mate Hugo Houle looked on, we were practically begging the producers to cut away.
And then there was the finish in Poitiers. It was supposed to be a simple bunch sprint but Lukas Pöstlberger had other ideas. It’s perfectly possible that his move - about which more in today’s Top Banana - contributed to what Sagan did next. In a Butterfly Effect sense it definitely did, but then “chaotic finale” is surely almost tautological by now.
In real time you probably didn’t see what happened. We certainly didn’t. With a second look it became clearer. Slow-mo replays three, four and five might have helped even more, but they probably at some point became more of a hindrance to understanding.
The lazy response was to imagine what would have happened if it had been someone other than Wout van Aert on the receiving end of Sagan’s shove. Would they have buckled? Or do we just have this idea of riders who’ve come to the road from cyclocross as basically trapeze artists? Maybe it wasn’t that bad.
But Van Aert himself was clearly unhappy with the move so maybe it was. Afterwards the Belgian expressed his feelings to reporters with a touch more eloquence: “I was really surprised and shocked at the moment I felt something… I was really scared.” Asked whether Sagan’s skills on the bike gave him more latitude to get away with moves like that, he responded: “This is a weird way of thinking. I'm also a good bike handler but it never comes in my mind to create space like that.”
And nor would it with Peter Sagan, normally. Without wanting to extrapolate motive, or engage in amateur psychology, not winning affects winners, right? And the fact is, he hasn’t experienced a win in an actual bike race since June 2019. Before this the three-time world champion hadn’t previously gone more than a year between victories across his entire career. If a winner is who you are - and it absolutely is who he is - that can’t be an easy thing to process. Nor can it be easy to be facing the gravest challenge to the green jersey since his very first Tour de France participation in 2012.
Fortunately, and what matters most, is Peter Sagan is still in this bike race. He’s still got the time and opportunities to be the rider he is.