Sagan feeling the pressure to perform before Strade Bianche

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Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) walks into the room, the flash of the cameras obscures his face, a shake of hands with women’s world champion Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) and he finally takes his seat at the table. His face is lacking the normal joy and comedy the Slovakian usually infuses into talks with the press. The pressure is mounting.

The pre-race press conference at Strade Bianche is exclusive, only world champions allowed. Sagan’s answers seem to mimic his lack of expression. His answers are short and calculated, almost rehearsed. But maybe that’s because he has heard the questions time and time again.

“I did try in Belgium last week, and now a different race.” Sagan tells the press with much less enthusiasm than the painter of the beautiful Siena Palazzo he is sitting in. “I have already two races in the legs and I don’t know, tomorrow I will do my best and the more important objective is in the front for sure.”

Sagan’s lack of expression is almost off-putting, and his comment on Belgium is odd. When he speaks about last weekend’s race it feels as though he is trying to convince someone. The press? Maybe, but the frustration that usually comes when asked about his 2016 winless streak was absent.

Ironically, last weekend Sagan “lost” to Greg Van Avermaet. The BMC Racing rider is the man who holds the nickname “The Bridesmaid,” one that could otherwise have become Sagan’s had he not won the world championships in Richmond, Virginia.

The Slovakian enters Strade Bianche searching for his first win of the season, and the pressure is building. The rainbow bands wrapped around his chest, as well as his popularity among fans, have ratcheted up the expectations to an almost unimaginable level.

However it’s important to remember that Sagan is not a seasoned classics veteran. This is the first season Sagan won’t qualify to wear the white best young rider’s jersey at the Tour de France. Though his breakthrough double stage wins at both Paris-Nice and Amgen Tour of California in 2010 seem like ages ago, he’s still only 26.

Multiple battles on the cobblestones of northern France and Belgium have yielded podiums, but the signature Monument win is still lacking. Team owner Oleg Tinkov voiced his displeasure of Sagan’s lack of winning at this time last year. On Friday, Tinkov struck a different tone on Twitter, writing, “Is @petosagan gonna win tomorrow Eroica? Fucking YEAH!”

Perhaps Tinkov’s exit from the sport, at the end of the season, has caused him to loosen the chokehold he had put on his riders to perform.

As an event, Strade Bianche is also still quite young. While this year marks only the 10th edition, the race has gained prestige, as there’s virtually nothing else like it on the calendar. The event refers to itself as the “Northern Classic in the South of Europe.”

“The history is great and it’s just unique in the world,” Sagan says. “Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and the Strade Bianche are different than normal races. I like it very much, I like to ride my bike on gravel roads more than on the asphalt. I’ve come second here twice, I’ll try my best once again tomorrow.”

Sagan will try to avoid a repeat of last year when he was dropped as the race closed in on the final sectors of gravel and attacks flew off the front of the select leading group.

In addition to Sagan and Van Avermaet, favorites for the 176km race, which starts and finishes in Siena, include last year’s winner Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step); two-time winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo); Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who placed third in both the 2014 and 2015 races; Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), the 2014 winner; and Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who will try to challenge the specialists.

The weather gods may play into Sagan’s favor. Rain is expected all day and the usually white gravel roads will turn to brown and muddy conditions should play into the former mountain bike world champion’s hands. His bike-handling skills are second to none in the pro peloton, and furthermore, Sagan seems to be building form. He appears to have the pop back in his legs moving toward his first major goal of the season, Milan-San Remo.

A bit of speaking Italian seemed to finally get the Slovakian to loosen up. When questioned. in Italian, on his tactics and possibly changing his strategy during races to hiding and waiting. Sagan responds with a smile, “Hide with this jersey? How? You try to keep yourself hidden wearing this jersey, and you tell me.”

And he’s right. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re the world champion. The pressure is mounting for Sagan to win again, and once again, he seems to be feeling it. A victory in Siena, however, would go a long way in lifting that burden.

Strade Bianche 2016
Course profile for the 2016 elite men’s Strade Bianche, 176km starting and finishing in Siena.

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