Peter Sagan has had trouble finding his way to the front at the finish this season.
Turns out he just needed to get back to the Tour of California.
The three-time road cycling world champion, and the winningest rider in race history, freelanced his way to the front of the opening stage Sunday and then held off fast-finishing Travis McCabe of the USA Cycling team to earn his 17th career win in North America’s biggest stage race.
Sagan had only one victory this season, a meager amount of success for arguably the world’s most versatile rider. Some thought he was still feeling the lingering effects of a crash at last year’s Tour de France, though the affable Slovakian sprinter insisted all along that he was close to form.
McCabe nearly caught him at the finish line in downtown Sacramento in what would have been a monumental upset. Max Walscheid rounded out the podium Sunday for Team Sunweb, which set a frantic pace over the final couple of miles to set up the sprint finish.
“I felt great. I was closing in on him,” McCabe said. “I had to come from two or three wheels back of Peter, and I knew this stage has a slightly false-flat, so I waited until I needed to go.
“Losing to a world champion,” McCabe added, “is not a bad thing.”
The only truly flat stage during the seven-day race transpired just about as everyone expected, with early breakaways slowly reeled in by a peloton intent on setting up a sprint finish.
The 89-mile stage rolled off under sunny conditions and out of the state capitol, then returned to Sacramento for a series of criterium-style laps. The last breakaway riders were caught with about 10 miles to go, setting up an intense and spectator-friendly finish in downtown Sacramento.
Sagan began freelancing his way toward the front, using rival teams rather than his own Bora-Hansgrohe team to deliver him to the front. He began to move up behind a series of Team Ineos riders as speeds hit 40 mph, then swung off in sight of the finish line and had enough to hold on.
Sagan punched the air with his right fist, then celebrated with his signature wheelie — a move that has become so common at the Tour of California, even if it had been rare so far this season.
Now the question becomes how long Sagan can defend the leader’s jersey.
The second stage Monday takes riders 122 miles from the start in Rancho Cordova to the popular skiing destination of South Lake Tahoe. The crucial climbing stages come later in the week, but riders will still navigate nearly 15,000 feet of ascent in what could shake up the general classification.
It could also be another chance for McCabe, who insisted he’s not a pure sprinter.
“I was looking more at stage 3 and stage 4, so coming here and getting second place — and it’s Mother’s Day and it’s actually my birthday,” he said. “I got some cake at the team presentation this morning. I think that gave me a little extra in the legs today.”