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One year ago Peter Sagan was in a playful mood in the days before of Paris-Roubaix, shrugging off the favourite tag he had inherited thanks to his win in the Tour of Flanders.
He gave short, semi-serious answers to journalists who asked him about his chances, and was back to the same sort of staccato responses on Saturday, less than 24 hours before the 2017 Tour of Flanders began.
However, this time around, those answers had one difference: at times he appeared more irked than amused by some of the questions. This is perhaps because he doesn’t already have a Monument win to his credit this season, a statistic he wants to put right on Sunday.
Sagan and Bora-hansgrohe team manager Ralph Denk met the press at 3pm in the team hotel near Roeselare, just over an hour from the Antwerp start for Flanders.
There, Sagan was asked how he expected the Belgian Classic to play out.
“That will be the big Kinder…,” he said, smiling, and pausing while searching for the word in English. “The…Kinder Surprise.”
In other words, he either didn’t know or wasn’t telling.
He was similarly non-specific about who he felt the favourites would be.
“Everybody, like always,” he said.
No names. Fill in your own gaps.
In recent weeks, Sagan’s performances have shown he is one of the strongest at present. He was clearly best in Milan-San Remo, putting in a huge surge on the Poggio and then dragging Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors) to the finish.
Kwiatkowski made a small contribution to the pace setting, then profited from Sagan’s early opening of the sprint to come around him just before the line.
More recently, Sagan was third in Gent-Wevelgem, being outmanoeuvred tactically in the finale. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) beat Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) to triumph.
Unsurprisingly, given recent wins, Van Avermaet and Three Days of De Panne victor Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors) are tipped by many as big contenders for Sunday.
However, pressed on the challengers and on Van Avermaet’s form, Sagan was reluctant to single him or anyone else out.
“He was very strong [recently],” he accepted, when pressed on the Belgian’s form. “He is a very good rider.”
“[But] I told you, there are a lot of riders, not just me and him in the peloton. The race is not just about two riders…”
The short answers were more evident when another journalist asked him if he was interested in the statistic that if he won on Sunday, he would become the first back-to-back winner wearing the rainbow jersey in each edition.
“I really like this jersey on me. It is much easier to ride,” he said.
Journalist: “What do you mean?”
Sagan: “That it is nice riding and racing in this jersey, the one I have. The rainbow jersey.”
Journalist: “Do you like the statistics? You can become the first double world champion that wins the Tour of Flanders in both years. Do you understand?”
Sagan: “I understand. What do you mean?”
Journalist: “Do you like these kind of statistics?”
Sagan: “It just happened. This is not a statistic.”
A similarly blunt exchange occurred when another journalist asked him if he would prefer to win Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.
“Flanders is the first race,” he answered, trying not to be drawn on a specific event. “We will see how it is going to be tomorrow. After that is Roubaix. For sure both races are very important. It would be very nice to win both. That will be very hard. But it is not impossible.”
When the journalist pressed him to choose one or other, he wasn’t biting.
“Can you tell me your goals?” Sagan asked him?
“Sometimes…” the journalist answered.
“Is it your goal to give me these questions?” asked the world champion.
‘We have no pressure’
Some of those present will note Sagan’s tone and wonder if he was short in some answers due to the importance of Sunday’s race.
However, according to Ralph Denk, the Slovakian isn’t coming under external stress from the team.
“We have no pressure,” the team manager insisted to CyclingTips, noting that the team has already had several WorldTour wins this season. “We have really thankful [appreciative] sponsors…they are totally quiet. They know how cycling works, for the company as a brand, but also internally. We cannot win every race and it is hard to win the big races.
“We have no pressure from the sponsors. We from the team are also relaxed. We are a newcomer in the WorldTour. We are top six in this moment in the team ranking. We won three WorldTour races so far. It’s all good and relaxed.”
Aside from that laid-back approach, he suggested that Sagan himself is very good at fending off pressure.
“I think the best aspect of Peter is he can be very concentrated for a point, and he can also be totally relaxed at another point,” he explained. “It is a way of being concentrated, relaxed, concentrated, relaxed.
“Especially if you are after a concentrated race, he can relax and that is a big advantage for him. He enjoys life, atmosphere, saying together with the team members and everything. And that is very important for him – not just being nervous and [dwelling on] racing in the head.”
He said that whatever the result on Sunday, he will completely switch off.
“After the finish line tomorrow he will not have Paris-Roubaix in the head,” he continued. “I think Paris-Roubaix comes to his head just one day beforehand. Between then he is really relaxed. It is also part of why it is nice to work with him.
“This is for sure part of the reason for his success. He has the balance. [He is] relaxed, and concentrated. In my opinion, some riders are not relaxed enough.
“This is his style, his talent. He has talent from the physical and also from the mental side.”
Objective: to win with panache
One example of Sagan’s approach can be seen in San Remo. Another rider in his situation might have been hugely frustrated by the outcome, given that he was visibly the strongest in the race. Had he been a little less generous in his pacesetting, or began his sprint fractionally later, he likely would have won.
However, rather than obsessing about the missed chance, he was smiling and joking around on the podium.
If he was racked by regrets, he certainly didn’t show it.
“Peter has his own style,” said Denk. “He is a freestyler, in my own opinion. He was happy with his ride in San Remo. For sure he was the strongest. In the end, maybe he had a bit too much confidence in himself, and then he started the sprint a bit too early. But in the end it was a nice show.
“For him, and for the team, the show is also very important. We agreed together with Peter the day before San Remo, if you have the chance to win we would like to win in the style of a world champion, and not to wait for a sprint of a small group on the Via Roma.”
In other words, the team would rather he put on a show rather than play things safe. To entertain rather than economise.
“It was his idea to attack on the Poggio, and [try to] win in a small group, or in the best case as a solo rider in San Remo,” said Denk.
“These kind of victories we didn’t have in the past years. It was a decision of Peter and the sport management of the team.”
The same aggressive approach will apply in Flanders. San Remo may not have worked out, but it seems he won’t play things conservatively in the year’s second big Classic.
“For tomorrow we also have some plans,” Denk said, smiling. “We will see. He is in a good shape, strong. He is very good so far…”
‘Last year is history’
What’s clear is that Sagan is someone who relishes a battle. He may have been tense at times in the press conference, but when the flag drops tomorrow he’ll be ready. He underlines the importance of luck and good legs when beginning a major objective, but also says he’s prepared mentally.
“It is not about confidence. I am always confident.”
Self-assurance aside, he’s also focussed on his objective rather than other issues. During the week a Belgian TV programme showed footage from Gent-Wevelgem, showing Sagan apparently shunting WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect rider Maxim Vantomme to one side on the ascent of the Kemmelberg.
He previously shrugged it off as part of racing. On Saturday, he said that it was not intentional.
“For sure I didn’t do that body check in purpose,” he stated. “It was not a reaction, but I think at that moment that I wanted to go in the front. My lever from the bike was blocked under the saddle of another guy. After that I lost the balance and I went to the left side.
“I gave him Vantomme] a body check, but it was not in purpose. That’s what I can say about that. I am sorry if I did something wrong, but worse things in the group are happening.”
The subtext was that he wanted to put that matter fully behind him. He’s got a race to win, and that’s what he wants to concentrate on.
“Last year is history. I am more focussed on tomorrow, because that is what is important,” he said.
“For sure, what happened last year is very nice and for sure I had nice memories about that. It was also, how I said, a special day for me, because everything went good last year.
“I had good legs, I was lucky in not crashing. I was in the right place at the right moment. I went in the breakaway with Kwiatkowski first. It was something like…it was good or not good, it just seemed like the right moment.
“Everything went very well. If the things [had] started to be more complicated, then there could be a different ending.”
He’ll hope for the stars to similarly align on Sunday. Milan-San Remo may have gone to the opportunist rather than the aggressor but, this time around, Sagan hopes to use the more selective finale of Flanders to put daylight between himself and his shadows.
If that works out, expect his next press conference to be considerably more upbeat.