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Can Sagan Do The Unthinkable?

Toc-main_mediumUnless you have been living under a rock, you have heard that Peter Sagan has won four out of four stages in the Amgen Tour of California in bunch sprints. Each victory has had its nuances - for the second, he railed a corner near the finish to gap his rivals; for the fourth, he opened up his sprint a long way out and nobody could come around; and for the third, he came around Heinrich Haussler at the last minute after cagily sitting in his slipstream until 50m to go. But regardless of the details of the sprints, there is another glaring fact.

Peter Sagan now leads the general classification by 40 seconds over any pre-race GC favorites.

Yes, the Tour of California has generous time bonuses - 10, 6, and 4 seconds - on the line for its stages. And as a result of his domination, Peter Sagan now has quite an advantage to play with. And people are starting to question - can he do the unthinkable? Can he win the race overall?

For any other sprinter, this question would never arise. Tom Boonen? Yes, he goes up the helling in Belgium faster than most, but California has mountains. Lots of them, including a summit finish atop the fearsome Mt Baldy. But, remember - we are talking about Peter freaking Sagan. The kid is more than just a sprinter. So, what can he do this week?

First, let us take stock of the situation. Sagan has 40 seconds on the major GC contenders already and it is not out of reach to expect him to pick up 10-20 additional seconds in time bonuses by the end of the week. Tomorrow's stage finishes atop the climb to Big Bear, and he won this stage last year two years ago. The finish in Sunday on a circuit could also suit him, provided he beats all the other sprinters. Given his domination this week, he might be able to do that... but it all depends on how deep he goes over the next three days when the other fast men will be taking it a bit easier. It is conceivable that Sagan could accrue up to 60 seconds in time bonuses, though 54 or 56 (one win and another podium) seems more realistic.

This afternoon we have a 29.7 kilometer time trial. The route is pretty straightforward - no dicey technical sections where Sagan's bike handling skills would give him an advantage. There are plenty of stout rollers on the course too, all in the 30 meters of elevation gain range except for the final 100 meter climb up to the finish. It's a TT for the hard men, not a pure specialist's course. And it might give a climber like Chris Horner the chance to make a little more time than usual.

The other stage where the GC contenders can gain time is Saturday's escapade up to the summit of Mt Baldy. Last year, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner put at least a minute into every other GC contender on this climb, which kicks into the double digit gradients over and over. Also pertinent is how the peleton had dwindled to less than 30 riders at the beginning of the climb last year.

What can we expect of Sagan on these stages? He has no real record in time trials, though one wonders how often he has really tried in one. Never before has he been in the situation of needing to have a good time trial to win a stage race - all other stage races he has won the overall in have not included time trials. But, given the kid's motor, I find it doubtful he will lose the race lead today.

The climbing stage is a bigger question mark - Sagan has some climbing pedigree - he did win a mountain stage of the 2011 Tour de Suisse, after all. However, that win came by virtue of being in the day's breakaway before chasing back onto Damiano Cunego's wheel on the descent of the final climb. Still, he was the second best climber out of the breakaway (one of his teammates went over the top ahead of him but was passed on the descent).

Can Sagan win the overall? It's conceivable to see him not lose real time to the GC contenders in the TT today, but tomorrow? It may be a bit much to ask him to limit his losses to Horner and the other climbers to under a minute. And with a big unknown sitting in the field, expect Radioshack and Garmin to make the race as hard as they can over Friday and Saturday in hopes of dropping the young Slovak. He has never seemed in difficulty when Garmin has attempted to split the bunch so thus far in the race, but they also have not had really favourable terrain to play with.

What do you think?