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Stage 13: Peter Sagans’ Glass Bead Game

16/10/2020

Somewhere on the internet there is a video of a line of marbles rolling down a furrow traced in the mud. They change positions, choose different lines, hold back then dart away full pelt, apparently racing for all they are worth. Just when one has what looks like a winning lead, it stalls and another flies past. If you’re used to watching cycling, you could be forgiven for projecting certain assumptions onto it: this marble has been in the red too long, that one’s thought processes are fogged and it has made a wrong choice.

If you let it, it can become compelling.

It is bizarre that something so utterly random can resemble so closely something as deliberately strategic and consciously willed, in so many quarters, as a Giro stage. Meticulously prepared at the cost of so much effort and pain, with such resources of training knowledge behind them, professional road racers are about as far from marbles rolling down a hill as it is possible to get.

But they are the first to recognise the role of chance in their profession. There is a saying in a number of languages: the road will decide, the road will put you in your place. It is a philosophy that Peter Sagan holds close to his heart. It is one of the reasons why his interviews can be so infuriating. He treats those two imposters, triumph and disaster, just the same. He said as much this morning is one of those increasingly rare interviews that remind you why he is the most loved rider by the public.

The question was about the day’s importance in the Maglia Ciclamino competition. It was, after all, the second of two stages that looked decidedly under-geared in the rule book: after all, if yesterday’s Nove Colli stage looked much harder than ‘of medium difficulty,’ today’s, with two climbs in the final 30 km, looked more demanding than ‘of low difficulty.’ But that is how it was rated, meaning that there were 50 Maglia Ciclamino points awaiting the winner on the finish line.

“It’s an opportunity,” said the great man, “and we will try.”

Asked “Do you expect many riders to survive these climbs?”, he said, with the old Sagan harrumph, “No. Including me. I don’t know if I’ll survive!”

As if to say, you’ll never know unless you try.

At the Roccolo GPM, km 162.5 (with 29.5 km to go), thanks to expert pacing by one of the revelations of this Giro so far, Matteo Fabbro, Sagan had a lead of nearly a minute of Démare. Under the 20 km to go banner, Démare’s Groupama-FDJ team-mates regained the Sagan group and moved to the front of the peloton. At the top of the final climb, Sagan was 16″ behind the Maglia Rosa group – too far back, it turned out, to win any points– with Démare only 29″ further back, not that it mattered any more.

Not content to roll in like so many marbles, Sagan, De Gendt, Ballerini and Swift attacked together with 3.5 km to go, trying to bridge, too late, to the lead group. The road seems to have made up its mind. But that won’t stop the Slovakian trying. Of that, we can be as sure as gravity.

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