Will Sagan win more Tour de France stages than Cavendish?

Felix Lowe Columnist

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    Peter Sagan has been in hot form. (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
    Felix Lowe

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (11)

    • February 14th 2013 @ 1:31pm
      Lee Rodgers said | February 14th 2013 @ 1:31pm | ! Report

      Interesting article Felix – how impressive is Sagan? Tom Boonen recently said that he’s the best he’s ever seen, which as we know is high praise indeed. Many a rider has suffered from ‘the next Eddy Merckx’ tag, but Sagan isn’t any other rider. His celebrations at the Tour last year proved that, when he was unbowed by the weight of history the race carries. I loved it, the daft moves, the wheelies…

      A few grumpy old men tut-tutted but what did he care? Not a jot.

      What is fascinating for me is that here we have a guy so unlike the usual fare of recent years. He came through the ranks marked out as a kind of up-hill sprint sensation but now he’s beginning to display the depth of his talent. And he can do it all. He’s still a little too muscular, as you note, to get in the top ranks in the really high mountains but he has a couple of years to lose that. If he can do that and improve his time trialing, we’ll be looking at a rider who will be able to win anywhere.

      Since before Indurain the sport hasn’t seen a rider like this, and he could be compared to Bernard Hinault in many ways. Since the early 90s the sport’s been full of specialists, which shows just how remarkable this guy is – and that explains his appeal to the fans too. Still, he has to actually go and win a Classic and get into the top 3 in a Grand Tour, or win say Paris-Nice, but it’s a sign of how much potential he has that sop many people are expecting all this already.

      Sagan himself is ice-cool, and he handles a bike better than anyone I’ve seen. Like Cavendish, a genius nn the bike, but with a wider capability. Looking forward to these Classics, he looks unbeatable on the hills right now…

      • February 19th 2013 @ 12:45am
        JDunn said | February 19th 2013 @ 12:45am | ! Report

        I don’t see Sagan as the next Hinault so much as the next Boonen. He’s never going to be the best climber or time-trialler; he’s a classics racer in the making.

        Merckx was an all-rounder but incredible though he was would not win as many races in today’s racing world as he did in the 1970s.

    • February 14th 2013 @ 4:12pm
      tommy said | February 14th 2013 @ 4:12pm | ! Report

      I absolutely love his celebrations. He is my new favorite rider.

    • Roar Rookie

      February 14th 2013 @ 5:59pm
      Justin Curran said | February 14th 2013 @ 5:59pm | ! Report

      I watch the way this incredibly young guy just destroys the rest of the field and rides past them like they are going backwards and I can’t help getting suspicious. Isn’t that a shame?

    • Columnist

      February 14th 2013 @ 9:19pm
      Felix Lowe said | February 14th 2013 @ 9:19pm | ! Report

      It’s going to be a big few months for Sagan – he’s yet to prove himself in the spring classics and it’s about time he notched a win. As is it, he’s a formidable stage racer – he just needs to make the step up. He certainly has it in him!

      As for suspicion, Justin – such is cycling, you could say that about anyone. Just look at the accusations leveled against Cancellara recently. The difference is that Spartacus is from that generation, whereas Sagan’s from the new generation – a generation who have to hope has more scruples. If guys like Sagan are getting involved in shady stuff, then cycling really is in a pickle. As it is, however, it’s riders like Sagan who offer a way out and some redeption.

      Either way, you can enhance the performance of a celebration!

    • February 14th 2013 @ 9:25pm
      Alex said | February 14th 2013 @ 9:25pm | ! Report

      I think we’ll see more race organisers use short uphill finishes, purely to attract riders like Sagan. It’s more exciting than watching Gripel cruise off the front and also much safer.

    • February 14th 2013 @ 9:30pm
      Axel Van Looy said | February 14th 2013 @ 9:30pm | ! Report

      Merckx has the absolute record in the TDF of stage victories while going for the overall GC, while Cavendish just tries to win stages, a big difference in my opinion ….

      Even if Cavendish wins 100 TDF stages he is not on the same level as a Merckx …. never ever…

      • Columnist

        February 18th 2013 @ 8:25pm
        Tim Renowden said | February 18th 2013 @ 8:25pm | ! Report

        I could not agree more.

      • February 19th 2013 @ 12:42am
        JDunn said | February 19th 2013 @ 12:42am | ! Report

        A slightly unsophisticated analysis. Clearly Cavendish s a different type of rider than Merckx and he also races in a far more competitive era than the Belgian did.

        I’d also point out that Merckx tested positive three times (look it up) while Cavendish has been clean.

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