SA­GAN'S LAST STAND

Procycling - - THE BIG INTERVIEW -

Kais­er­jäger­straße, the area where the team ve­hi­cles parked, was a hotch-potch of World­Tour colour and white-rental-van anonymity. The Bel­gian team was ser­viced by both sides of the coun­try’s Old Firm: a Lotto Soudal bus and a Quick-Step me­chan­ics’ truck. FDJ and Di­rect En­ergie sup­ported France. Bora-Hans­grohe sent two buses to Aus­tria, one for Ger­many and the other for Slo­vakia. Around and about, recog­ni­tion of World­Tour team staff and rid­ers took a mo­ment longer, to ac­count for the dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing ef­fect of fa­mil­iar faces in un­fa­mil­iar jer­seys and polo shirts.

Out­side the Slo­vakians’ bus, with around 90km left to race, six or seven jour­nal­ists be­gan to loi­ter, await­ing the im­mi­nent ar­rival of Peter Sa­gan. The triple world cham­pion had al­ready been pinched out of the lead­ing group and it was a ques­tion of when, not if, he would re­tire. The rest of the Slo­vakian team, who barely made it onto the cir­cuit, were al­ready in the bus and show­ered and changed when their cap­tain rolled up and into the space cor­doned off in front of the ve­hi­cle. This was the fi­nal act of Sa­gan’s un­prece­dented reign in the men’s world cham­pion’s jer­sey. Was he sad? He didn’t look it. Dis­ap­pointed? No, not that ei­ther. His mouth curled up­wards in a fa­mil­iar in­scrutable smile and he dis­ap­peared onto the bus.

The cor­don be­gan to bris­tle with mics and cam­era phones as more me­dia ar­rived to catch Sa­gan’s first re­ac­tion. With no ap­pear­ance from the bus look­ing im­mi­nent, it gave time to ad­mire the crisp moun­tain ridge that stood out against a flaw­less blue sky. The ridge and ev­ery­thing below had the im­me­di­acy of the fore­ground in a pop-up book. Inns­bruck re­ally had basked in an In­dian sum­mer all week.

When Sa­gan did even­tu­ally come over he wore the same mask. Was he sur­prised he felt that bad, French TV asked. “Oh, not a bad day, bad race for me, ha-ha. It was very dif­fi­cult; it’s a lot of climb­ing and I think it’s also good that maybe some climber is go­ing to win to­day. I’m very proud of my three years in the rain­bow jer­sey. Now is the time to give it to some­body else.” What were his emo­tions on hav­ing fi­nally con­ceded the jer­sey? “I was ex­pect­ing it. I’m not sad, I’m happy.” With that, he turned away. Sa­gan’s pace through the Mr Men Lit­tle Book of Feel­ings shows lit­tle sign of speed­ing up.

Sa­gan did have one fi­nal part to play and he did end up on the podium in the awards cer­e­mony. While David Lap­par­tient pre­sented the rain­bow jer­sey, Sa­gan was de­tailed to hang the gold medal around the neck of his suc­ces­sor. That turned out to be Ale­jan­dro Valverde and the scene had a cu­ri­ous air, like the nat­u­ral or­der had been mo­men­tar­ily re­versed: here was the 28-year-old mul­ti­ple world cham­pion hon­our­ing the 38-yearold-first timer. It was an ar­rest­ing re­minder of one party’s pre­coc­ity and the other’s supreme longevity. From their brief chat on stage, Valverde re­ported that “Sa­gan told me he was re­ally happy about my vic­tory, that if it wasn’t him who stayed in the rain­bow jer­sey, he’d like me to take over as world cham­pion.”

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