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by Shane Stokes
July 1, 2016
Photography by Kristof Ramon, Cor Vos
As he did prior to Paris-Roubaix, Peter Sagan has once again shrugged off pressure in the days before a major race. The Tinkoff rider will begin his fifth Tour de France as world road race champion and on the same team as GC contender Alberto Contador, but he appeared relaxed, confident and fully at ease with himself and his task at the team hotel on Thursday.
Reminded by a journalist that last year he said he would try to win every day because he has ‘big balls,’ he was asked how the same part of his anatomy was this year. The subtext to the question was if he would once again be riding aggressively; his response made things clear in that regard.
“[They are] maybe bigger,” he said. “Every year they are growing.”
The moment brought a loud laugh from the media covering the conference, but it also showed his outlook. Although Sagan is a key component in Contador’s bid for a third Tour title, he also has clear personal ambitions for the race.
“I think it is the same [as before]. I want to try to win some stages,” he said. “Maybe the green jersey if it is possible. And to help Alberto, he wants to go for yellow. I think that is the biggest goal we have.”
Twelve months ago Sagan attacked repeatedly in search of a stage win. He was in the first year of a major contract with the team, and was being paid big money to take victories. That led to an aggressive approach and a staggering run of results between stages two and eight.
He was second, 27th, third, second, second, third and fourth on stages and lay the foundations for a dominant win in the green jersey classification.
It seems he might be similarly aggressive this time around.
Journalist: In the first week do you have a stage in mind you think you can win?
Sagan: Why do I have to think of not winning?
Journalist: But is there one stage that you think you have a good chance for in the first week?
Sagan: In my life every day is a chance. Why not?
In his position, many others have choked as world road race champion. Wearing the rainbow jersey brings both pressure and commitments, and the net result has often been a far quieter twelve months after taking gold.
However, for Sagan this doesn’t appear to be the case. This season he has notched up six wins, including the Tour of Flanders, and things are clearly going well.
“I don’t know how to answer,” he said when asked what he does differently to them. “I am living my life and I was never in another skin. With other riders I don’t know.. there are a lot of other riders who had world champion jersey and also won. But every year is different.
“This year I did already well, but I am looking forward to doing something more. We will see what happen. But for me, personally, there is not a very big difference between wearing the jersey and not. Maybe for me it is more easy because I am happy to see myself in the jersey.
“I am trying to take the things more positively than negatively.”
Much as he likes to wear the rainbow bands, he’d jump at the chance to don the Maillot Jaune for the first time in his career. However he said he didn’t want to focus too much on that, having learned before that tunnel vision doesn’t always work out.
“I was trying for four years to be in the yellow and it never happened,” he explained. “Sometimes it is better that I don’t try. Then maybe it happens.
“If you are looking for it to happen, it doesn’t work.”
Like Sagan, Contador also wants to don yellow, although he won’t be content with just a stint in the famous garment. He wants to take it all the way to Paris.
The Spaniard triumphed in 2007 and 2009 and joined his current setup when it was still being run by Bjarne Riis. The squad has since changed ownership but the goal remains the same: to win the Tour de France again.
At 33 he knows that time is running out and, perhaps, this year’s Tour will be the best chance he has topping the podium once more.
Sagan has his own personal ambition but said that he was fully committed to the squad’s big mission. He said that Contador could count on his support.
“We are two years on the same team. We did also a lot of races last year. This year we are going to do just this one,” he said. “The relationship is very good. We are different kind of riders, but still Alberto is a very big champion.
“I am here also for him, to help him and also all the team. I am very happy to be part of a team who is going to try to fight for a yellow jersey.”
Some of the other riders have a very clear role: to help Contador in the mountains. Unlike them, Sagan is not a natural climber. He was asked what particular part he would play in trying to further his success.
“How can I help him? It depends from each day,” he answered. “Maybe in some dangerous stages in the wind. It depends…the situation every day is very particular.
“It is hard to say now what I can do, but there are a lot of things during the stage.”
Aside from protecting Contador, there is also the possibility of going on the attack. Time can be lost in the opening week, particularly on wide-open, wind-buffeted roads, and any chance to take time out of riders like Chris Froome (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will be seized.
“They are strong, we are stronger,” he smiled, when asked about the two GC favourites.
“With Quintana I did just Tirreno-Adriatico before. With Froome I never raced this year. They are climbers. We can drop them on the flat.”
Sagan then laughed and said that he was joking, but the reality is different: if he sees any weakness on their part and if Contador is close by, he’ll hammer things to try to press home an advantage.
At other times, he will chase his own targets. It’s one year on from a very aggressive opening week in 2015 but, to quote the expression he used then and once again on Thursday, he’s keen to prove that he’s got the balls to attack the Tour again and again.