The dust over Slovakian world champion Peter Sagan’s expulsion from this year’s Tour de France will take some time to settle.
The injudicious elbow cocked by Sagan put Mark Cavendish into the crash barrier – and ultimately out of the Grand Boucle with a cracked shoulder blade – in the furious last 100m of the sprint finish in Tuesday’s 207.5km stage from Mondorf-les-Bains to Vittel.
The unhappy ending to the stage points directly to the very nature of cycling’s top sprinters. They are, in short, the gunslingers of the sport and when the red mist descends as the adrenaline kicks in and the line gets closer there are two options: back off or put it all out there.
Cavendish has a fine record on the road, winning 30 Tour de France stages, putting him second on the all-time list – and with 48 Grand Tour stage victories he is joint third on the all-time list.
But he has gathered a reputation for arrogance alongside that record.
“When journalists at the Tour de France ask me if I am the best sprinter, I answer Yes, and that’s seen as arrogance,” he said in 2008. “But if they don’t ask me, I don’t say I’m the best sprinter in the world.”
Sagan has never been a shrinking violet when the gas pedal goes down. He has a string of victories – including world road race titles for the past two years – and since he entered the charged arena of Le Tour in 2012, has worn the sprinters green jersey every year since.
His chance of matching German Erik Zabel’s record of six green jersey victories has disappeared this year, but very few would predict that Sagan will better that benchmark in years to come.
Sagan also has an individual arrogance you would expect from a fabulously talented rider. “I do not want to be the second Eddy Merckx,” he said of comparisons with the Belgian legend. “I want to be the first Peter Sagan.”
With that attitude, it is hardly surprising that the man they call the “Tourminator” would see his rivals as anything other than targets, or that a character as prickly as Cavendish would resent being allotted this status by the Serb.
Road cycling’s sprinters are an inherently different breed – much like the demented runners taking on the bulls in Pamplona.