Originally published in Peloton Magazine Issue 50.
“This is a bit like vacation for us,” Tristan Hoffman, the Tinkoff-Saxo directeur sportiff was in the driver’s seat and we were only a handful of miles into the fourth stage of the Tour of California. The Spring Classics were a recent memory, the Giro was happening somewhere far away and the big summer races were still about a month away. This particular stage of the race also started on a wooden pier in the resort town of Avila Beach adding to the the somewhat relaxed mindset.
It did not take long for the strategy planning to begin. A few Tinkoff-Saxo riders would appear at the rear of the peloton and make their way back to the team car to discuss the plan. Peter Sagan made his way and asked Tristan to show him the map of the stage. He pointed to a straight part of the course near San Luis Obispo airport: “This is where we go?” Tristan agreed. A cross-wind was forecast for that particular part of the course. “Problem is, everybody else is thinking the same thing as well.”
Tinkoff-Saxo had a problem. The team lost two riders to crashes on the previous day and Sagan continued to receive pressure from everyone starting from people making internet comments all the way up to Oleg Tinkov. His results in California up to this point were much like the rest of his season, close but not quite.
Someone in the bunch calls for a piss break and the pace slows down as we pass the peloton lining both sides of the road in various states of contortion taking care of their biological needs. As the riders start to make their way back up through the caravan Tristan is telling a story but suddenly goes quiet. I look over and see that he is looking in the driver’s side mirror. As he start making a gentle left turn, I hear banging and shouting coming from the left rear of the car. As he passes the driver’s door, Cavendish has a big smile and says something… Cavendish-like to Tristan. When he passes we notice a photographer on the back of a motorcycle just to our left furiously taking pictures of what he must have thought was about to be an amazing incident where one team took our another team’s star sprinter. We laugh. Tristan’s history with Cav at HTC-Highroad surely goes missing on the photographer.
“They won’t work with us,” Sagan was back at the car now, once again looking at the map of the course. The pace started to increase, as the race radio crackled to life every few minutes with updates on attempted moves and inevitable responses from the bunch. Tristan turns up the XM1 Preview Channel on the satellite radio. I wonder if he realizes that we have been listening to the same five songs the entire day.
No time for talking now. No one is able to get away from the group and the entire peloton is picking up steam as it makes its way back to the ocean and the finish line in Pismo Beach. Everyone knows the finish will be contested by a sprint, but the particular uphill variety of the final few hundred meters make it suitable for a Sagan finish. If only he can be in the right spot at the right time. The caravan’s tires screech as we make it past the 5K TO GO sign when the Race Radio comes back to life “Tinkoff-Saxo rider mechanical”. Without as much as a blink, Tristan slams on the accelerator and I get pressed into the passenger seat and I hear the banging of carbon rims in the back as the mechanic is getting ready to jump out and fix whatever problem the unidentified rider is having and help keep him in contention. There is a quick sense of relief when we see that the rider by the side of the road is not Sagan but Daniele Bennati. His body language shows frustration with the situation: he was going to be one of the main lead out men to bring Sagan to the finish line in a few kilometers. The mechanic jumps out before the car comes to a a full stop and quickly swaps out the wheel with the flat tire. Tristan calmly pats Daniele on the back and both smile: it’s too late to do anything for Sagan now.
We get back in the car and drive a few kilometers to Pismo Beach. Race Radio is giving second by second updates and finally crackles to life announcing the Unofficial Top 3 finishers of the stage. It is hard to hear, but I think she said Sagan won. I look over at Tristan and he does not seem to react. I stay quiet. We are directed to the team waiting area and the Race Radio comes on again and repeats the results, confirming Sagan in first place. Tristan yells out: “HOLY SHIT, WE WON!”
Later that night we run into each other at the dinner buffet. “Hey, anytime you want to ride along with us, just let me know,” Tristan smiled. “You’re like a lucky charm.” They did not need me. A few days later in Pasadena, Sagan’s wheel crossed the finish line a few centimeters in front of Tyler Farrar’s giving the Slovak the time bonus he needed to take the overall win at the Tour of California by three seconds.