Peter Sagan means business at the Tour of Flanders. As if to prove the point, after 15 minutes of listening to his thoughts on the forthcoming Ronde in Roeselare on Saturday, reporters were ushered into the room next door for the launch of a line of bikes bearing the world champion's name.
The line between press conference and timeshare presentation is often blurred in a sport where teams owe their very existence to selling their naming rights to sponsors, but few riders' images have been hawked as extensively as that of Sagan over the past number of years. Seated at a top table bedecked with bottles of the alcohol-free beer he now peddles, Sagan cut a relaxed figure as he fielded questions on his build-up for the Tour of Flanders.
Already the winner of the Ronde in 2016, Sagan lines out as the favourite again this time around in the wake of his victory at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday, even if his previous travails at E3 Harelbeke – where he was a faller early on – had raised some questions about his condition.
"Sometimes it's better not to think and just do the things. I'm not focusing on what was before but what is today or tomorrow," Sagan said when asked for an update on his form a week on.
Sagan did not line out at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, although he opted to stay in Belgium for the week rather than return to his home in Monaco, and reportedly trained near Nieuwspoort on the North Sea coast as he recovered from his efforts last weekend.
"It was already scheduled that I would do Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem, like the years before, but for sure, the weather was bad and it was cold [at Dwars door Vlaanderen]. There were many risks," Sagan said. "I preferred not to do that race.
"We did a recon on Thursday, and this week I was in a quiet place, away from this atmosphere of the race. I was training, very relaxed. That's all."
Given his considerable talent and his hefty palmarès, it is safe to assume that Sagan has rarely if ever lined out for a major race short on confidence, but a third Gent-Wevelgem win last weekend – his first victory since January – can only have offered further assurance in the build-up to the Ronde.
"It's always better to have something than not," Sagan agreed. "I'm happy now, we are more relaxed as a team. And for myself, it's always good to have some victories."
Sagan's playful public persona and his penchant for social media mean that he would never be mistaken for the Flandriens of Ronde lore, but his natural inclination towards aphorism might have earned nods of approval from the grandees of the race's past all the same. His response when asked to summarise the importance of the Tour of Flanders for a non-Flemish rider was a case in point.
"It's important because it's important," Sagan said. "It's an important race because it has history. It's important for the cycling world, it doesn't matter what country it's from."
No time to chat with Naesen
In Saturday morning's L'Équipe, Naesen noted that he had never been able to speak with Sagan about the incident, though not for want of trying. "Sagan is special. In the peloton, he doesn't talk to everybody," Naesen said. "Every time I try to approach him, he turns away and doesn't even respond."
Asked about Naesen's comments on Saturday afternoon, Sagan demurred, saying: "I never met him in the group if he was trying to speak to me, I don't know."
This time around, Sagan, Van Avermaet and Naesen will again be among the contenders, though the approach of the Quick-Step team of 2017 winner Philippe Gilbert will play a pivotal role in how the race unfolds. As ever, Sagan was reluctant to go into much detail about his tactical approach or that of his rivals, beyond heralding the presence of Daniel Oss on his Bora-Hansgrohe team this time around. "We can do more things tactically, because he has the quality to be in front in the final to play a different game," he said.
Sagan was slightly more expansive when he switched from English to Italian for RAI television after the main press conference, though he dismissed the idea that his Gent-Wevelgem win had been all the sweeter because it had come at the expense of the Quick-Step team.
"I don't think of those things. At Gent-Wevelgem, in the end it wasn't a race of me against Quick-Step, everybody was there," Sagan said. "They decided to ride for a sprint and I concentrated only doing my sprint, to win, not to beat somebody or to have bad thoughts – just to win."
Milan-San Remo winner Vincenzo Nibali will make his Ronde debut on Sunday, and Sagan laughed coyly and then paused when asked what part, if any, he had played in the Sicilian's eventual victory on the Via Roma.
"I can only say that Vincenzo deserved that win because he was the only one who did what he decided to do himself. He showed that he has balls," Sagan said. "If somebody who was watching me had gone and followed Vincenzo, there might have been more riders together over the top of the Poggio. But if nobody wanted to follow him, then…"
A Flemish station, meanwhile, asked Sagan if he had any words for the thousands of amateur riders who were participating in the Tour of Flanders sportive on the very same roads as the Ronde on Saturday afternoon.
"They are doing that for fun. For me it's the job," Sagan said in a small room bustling with television crews from across Europe and representatives from his many sponsors. "But it's a job that I like and I have fun."
Click here to subscribe to the Cyclingnews podcast.