Peter Sagan holds the record for the number of stage wins at the Amgen Tour of California (eight) but he isn't resting on his laurels. The 23-year-old Slovak and leader of the Italian Cannondale Pro Cycling team is back in California and hungry to pick up where he left off from in 2012.
As he tells Cyclingnews Editor Daniel Benson, the Amgen Tour of California is a race that's has become intertwined with his development as a rider and an integral part of his build-up for the Tour de France, where this year he will aim to win his second green jersey.
Cyclingnews: Peter, you hold the record for the number of stage wins in the race. Can you pick a favorite stage win?
Peter Sagan: One of the greatest memories I have comes from the Amgen Tour of California actually. It was stage 1 in Santa Rosa. I had puncture with seven kilometers to go. I then came through a crash when I was chasing but I managed to move to the front and the head of the bunch just in time for the sprint. And it was a great sprint… I saw this year that there's a stage finish in Santa Rosa again: It's something I've been thinking about, for sure.
CN: Do you remember your first stage win in the race in 2010 at Bakersfield? Was that a special moment for you and your development as a rider?
PS: Of course, and I remember that stage finish really well. It was special because it was like a confirmation for me. The wins in Paris-Nice and Tour of Romandie were great that year, but I expected more. The Tour of California is an important race and I wanted to take a win there, so I wanted be among the protagonists. When I got my first win I thought: ok, I'm on the right path as a rider now.
CN: Why do you think you're so successful in the Tour of California? You seem to be really motivated for the race each year, why is that?
PS: Well, I really don't know, if I'm really honest. Maybe there's a special feeling that I get from the race. When I start a race I'm always motivated to do well. If the race is important, as for example Tour of California, my motivation increases. But it is a special race, it's important for the team, the crowds are fantastic and it means a lot to win here.
CN: Is the race even more important for the team and you because Cannondale has become the title sponsor?
PS: Since the first time I came to California I knew that it was important for Cannondale. They've been providing the team with bikes for a few years. So we're an American-sponsored team, using American bikes at the biggest American bike race. Of course we're happy to make our sponsor proud of us. However, the Tour of California is important because every year you can challenge important riders. Taking a win in California is a prestigious result.
CN: Last year when you won five stages, was that the point when you realized that you could go on and win the green jersey in the Tour de France?
PS: I usually don't think about the future too much. So when I was racing here last year I was just focusing on one stage at a time. I prefer to concentrate on the present and think step-by-step. When I got my fifth win I was only really happy with my performance and it wasn't really with much thought for July at that point.
CN: Why have you chosen to do the Tour of California instead of the Giro d'Italia?
PS: Firstly because I don't like to start a Grand Tour and already know that I won't finish it. Second, with the team we decided to focus on only one long stage race. If you want to aim high in the Classics and at the Tour de France, you have to save energy. And lastly, because I really enjoy the Tour of California!
CN: What ambitions do you have for this year's race?
PS: Well, to repeat the 2012 performance would be a dream. For sure, my way to race will be the same: and I will try to be competitive every day and do my best, giving 100 per cent each day. We'll only be able to assess the race at the end of the final stage.
CN: Have the wins in California given you more confidence as a person and as a rider? You seemed to grow in confidence and look more comfortable on the podium last year as each stage passed.
PS: As a rider every win gives you confidence, but if you want to win again you have to forget what you did in the last race and start from scratch again, race like you've never won before, and keep your hunger. As a person, the warmth and the support that the Californian fans gave me was a special feeling. Yes, I can say I'm more confident though: I feel like I'm at home here.
CN: What's your favorite city in California, and would you ever go there on holiday?
PS: I really like California and the USA as a whole. I spent some days on holiday in January this year, just before Cannondale Pro Cycling's presentation. It's a really beautiful place to train, there's the warm weather and… Hollywood. I had a tour in the studios and I was really impressed.
CN: Is the Tour of California the best preparation and training for the Tour de France?
PS: From my experience, the Tour of California was one of the best ways to prepare for the Tour de France. The weather and routes make this race an important step to work on your condition. But Tour of California is not a race just for training, the Tour of California is an important race to win.