SERAING, Belgium (Reuters) - One of the most precocious talents in cycling, Peter Sagan came of age when he won the first stage of his first Tour de France on Sunday.
At 22, the Slovakian had already impressed the cycling world since his two stage wins in Paris-Nice two years ago but the victory over 198 kms from Liege was career topping and probably the first of a long list of Tour successes.
Sagan, the youngest winner of a Tour de France stage since Lance Armstrong in 1993, was the only rider capable of taking the wheel of Swiss Fabian Cancellara when the prologue winner attacked in the steep last hill leading to the finish line.
One of the fastest sprinters in the bunch, the Slovakian powered to the line in front of the Olympic time trial champion, who retained his overall leader’s yellow jersey.
“It’s a good day. I knew that Cancellara would attack on the finale and I just tried to follow him. He was riding so fast that I could not take turns, I had to wait for the final stretch to overtake him,” Sagan told reporters.
Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, like Sagan more of a strong finisher than a pure sprinter, managed to catch up with the two escapees in the final kilometre, but had to be content with third on the line.
“I told myself the best defence was to attack,” said race leader Cancellara.
“I’m not a sprinter so I decided to move from afar but there was nothing I could do in the final 10 metres,” he added.
The Swiss won a stage with the yellow jersey in 2007 and he pledged to try again in Tuesday’s third stage to Boulogne sur Mer, a hilly ride suiting his qualities.
“I’d first love to take the yellow jersey into France and then hopefully hold it until the first mountain stage in La Planche des Belles Filles,” he said.
While the yellow jersey positions hardly moved, Briton Bradley Wiggins being content with staying out of trouble to retain his second place - seven seconds behind - Sagan emerged as a very serious contender for the points classification’s green jersey.
“This is a good start,” he said, especially as Briton Mark Cavendish, the green jersey winner in 2011, was dropped in the last climb, finishing two minutes seven seconds adrift.
Sagan had a point to prove after slipping up in Saturday’s prologue, losing precious time when his foot skidded off the pedals and he narrowly avoided crashing.
“Yesterday I was already happy not to crash but it was not a prologue for me, more for the real time-trial specialists like Cancellara or Wiggins. Today was much better, obviously,” Sagan added.
He chuckled when it was suggested he might be heading in the same direction as seven-times Tour champion Armstrong.
“Oh my God, I would love it to be true. But I’m only at the start of my career. We’ll see where it leads me,” he said.
In spite of a fantastic season, which saw him win five stages in the Tour of California and four in the recent Tour of Switzerland, Sagan acknowledged the Tour de France was a whole different experience.
“You can tell it’s a race like no other. There are so many people on the roadside, so many media, the race goes much faster, there is more stress heading towards the finish. I must learn to get used to it,” he said.
Monday’s second stage takes the peloton from Vise to Tournai over 207.5 kilometres and should be a chance for pure sprinters to have the final say.
Editing by Mark Meadows