At the top of the Norton Summit on stage four of the Tour Down Under, every climber and puncheur in the race knew they were screwed.
Most all the sprinters were gone, shot out the back, trying to keep cool in the gruppetto, but not the three-time and reigning Wold Champion Peter Sagan of Bora Hansgrohe.
That spelled disaster: a superstar sprinter with masterful descending skills now ready to ride everyone off his wheel.
On the flat section across the top, Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) got a small gap that Sagan quickly erased. He then counter-attacked, going into a tight aero tuck on the downhill run, before the chasers pulled him back when they hit the flat road to the finish.
That didn’t matter to Sagan as the conclusion was still inevitable. Coming from five or six riders back, he blasted to the front again with Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) on the his wheel. Impey was hoping for his own win and enough time bonus seconds to take the ochre jersey.
Impey would become the final victim as Sagan just beat him to the line and turned those bonus seconds into the race leaders jersey. The man in the rainbow bands gave us an early season display of his prodigious talents, race skills and panache.
Like most champions, he made it look effortless when it was anything but. “It was a really tough day. It was really hot and when we came to the bottom of the last climb, it was not about pain or legs,” said Sagan.
The Norton Summit climb is just 5.5 kilometers at a grade of 5% but it’s early in the season, the speeds were over 30 kph and the heat topped 113 degrees fahrenheit. That’s a difficult challenge even if you’re a top Tour de France GC rider.
Like he did in winning the overall for the 2015 Tour of California, Sagan’s performance came as a bit of a surprise even to himself. “It was a really strange feeling. I didn’t expect I could climb like that in this period,” said Sagan.
It was also a surprise to Richie Porte, George Bennett or everyone else on the Norton Climb.