Will Sagan win more Tour de France stages than Cavendish?

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Slovak cyclist Peter Sagan of Cannondale adjusts the red jersey (leader jersey) after winning the third stage of the Tour of Oman, from Nakhal Fort to Wadi Dayqah Dam, on February 13, 2013, in Oman. AFP PHOTO / JEFF PACHOUD

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As Mark Cavendish edges closer to his 100th career stage scalp, Slovak sensation Peter Sagan took his own tally up to 49 with back-to-back wins in the Tour of Oman.
 
The sight of superman Sagan sling-shotting himself clear of the field on an uphill drag to the finish is something cycling fans are getting rather accustomed to – as are the 23-year-old tyro’s increasingly zany celebrations.
 
On Tuesday, when he crossed the line 100 metres clear of his nearest rival at the conclusion of stage two, Sagan kept it beautifully simple, pointing to his green Cannondale team jersey with his left hand and giving a satisfied thumbs up with his right.
 
The combination could well have been merely a nod to the team sponsors and a celebration of his first win of the season. But on closer reflection, it seemed a bit more complex than that.

The new race leader wasn’t pointing to his team logo – he was pointing to his chest, as if to emphasise that he was not only number one in Oman, but number one in general.
 
Twenty-four hours later, Sagan crossed the line in the leader’s red jersey to take a second win in as many days.

This time he effortlessly powered clear from the likes of Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Tony Gallopin (RadioShack) and Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) in the closing straight before having the luxury of being able to sit up and savour the victory.

Not so much savour as to goad: looking over his shoulder and realising just how lavish his winning margin was, Sagan smiled, jangled his arms about in the air and comically shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘Where are you guys? Is that all you’ve got?’
 
It was the celebration of perhaps the peloton’s most rounded rider; a rider who had just won with Merckxian ease; a rider whose natural aggression perfectly harmonises both explosive sprinting and punchy climbing; a rider whose 50th career win will no doubt come before the week’s up and whose century could well be reached at an earlier moment in his career than that of 27-year-old Cavendish.
 
Amongst a Twitter timeline brimming with Sagan love – an entranced David Millar, for instance, simply wrote: “Seriously, I want to be Peter” – one tweet really stood out for me.

Former SBS journalist Sophie Smith, an Australian reporter with Cycle Sport and Cycling Weekly who has followed the career of Cavendish intently, made a statement and a half:

“Cavendish is in a prime position to break Merckx’s all-time Tour de France stage win record but I wonder if Sagan will, in time, come up trumps.”
 
It got me thinking.
 
Eddy Merckx currently holds the most amount of Tour stage wins having hungrily amassed 34 victories of all types – sprint, mountain and time trial – during his record-equalling run of five overall Tour de France wins.
 
With Cavendish currently poised on 23 stage wins and picking up victories at a rate of 4.6 per Tour since his maiden win in 2008, there’s good reason to believe that the Manxman, injury permitting, will draw level with Merckx’s tally by the end of the 2014 race – perhaps even on his favourite stomping ground, the Champs Elysees in Paris – by which time he’ll be 29 years old.
 
Presuming Cav can emulate the likes of Alessandro Petacchi and, ahem, Mario Cipollini and continue winning sprints well into his 30s then it’s probably a safe bet that his total career haul for the Tour will break through the 40-stage barrier by the time he hangs up his cycling shoes and calls it a day.
 
Can Sagan emulate that? Can he even get close?

Simply to draw level with Merckx’s total, Sagan would have to replicate his achievement from his debut Tour last summer and bring in a hat-trick of wins in every race for the next decade.
 
But is that so much of a tall order for a rider who looks as if he can win pretty much on every terrain – very much in the mould of Merckx?
 
After all, back in 2011 during his debut Vuelta a Espana he also won a hat-trick of stages – and did so at the tender age of 21. In last year’s Tour de Suisse he even won an individual time trial.
 
Sagan has showed over the past two seasons that he has the ability to develop into a true all-rounder, succeeding Philippe Gilbert as a rider whose name is first on the list when you see a rolling stage with a punchy uphill finish.
 
But while he can certainly develop into a better rider than Gilbert – indeed, he could reach that milestone this season – he’ll very rarely beat a pure speedster like Cavendish in an out-and-out flat bunch sprint.

And yet Sagan will carve open many more opportunities for himself in stages that his rival wouldn’t even dream of winning – the kind of opportunities that will give him a big advantage in the points classification of any Grand Tour.
 
A lot will depend on how Sagan progresses and whether or not he ever sheds the bulk necessary to transform himself into a potential GC candidate.

Alternatively, he take it upon himself to develop into a sprinter as explosive as Cavendish on the flat. Or focus more intently on the classics. Who knows.
 
Regardless, Sagan will pick up multiple wins in any stage race he enters. What’s more, those wins will be infinitely more memorable than Cavendish’s – simply by virtue of his audaciousness and foolhardy elegance.
 
Sagan’s natural aggression and all round ability should deliver him, over the course of a long and successful career, not only more wins but also a greater variety of wins than both Cavendish and Andre Greipel, who notched his own century last month in Australia.
 
Sagan also has the ability to win more classics than both his rivals – and he hasn’t even got started on the Giro yet.
 
But I don’t believe he can overtake Cavendish when the Omega Pharma-QuickStep man soon sweeps past Merckx to top the Grande Boucle leader board.

Sagan will give the Belgian legend a run for his money – but Cavendish’s eventual hoard of Tour stage scalps is a record that’s likely to adorn the Guinness Book of Records for many, many a year to come.

You’ll never see Cavendish pull a no-handed wheelie going over the summit of a climb, though.

Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.