Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) arrives in Belgium ahead of Friday’s E3 Harelbeke still looking for his first victory since becoming world champion with that solo effort in Richmond in late September. The rainbow jersey carries with it additional scrutiny, though it could be argued that Sagan had already reached saturation point in that department twelve months ago.
On that occasion, just weeks into life in the court of Oleg Tinkov, Sagan approached the Classics with just one win under his belt, a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico. After another disappointing showing at Milan-San Remo, he was burdened, too, by questions as to whether he had the legs and tactical acumen for Monument-length racing.
Sagan’s 2015 Belgian campaign was inconclusive. As is his wont, he was a prominent performer on the cobbles, but he came away empty-handed after unexpected collapses in the finales of both E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders, where he placed fourth.
Victory at the Richmond Worlds in the meantime has allayed many concerns about Sagan’s ability to deliver in the Monuments, but the opening part of his 2016 season has followed a familiar pattern of near misses. He reaches the cobbled classics with five second places to his name, while Fernando Gaviria’s crash on the Via Roma prevented him from contesting the sprint for the win at Milan-San Remo.
“Peter is living this whole period very calmly, he’s very serene about it all,” Sagan’s teammate Oscar Gatto told Cyclingnews in Roeselare on Wednesday. “I’ve been sharing a room with him recently and he deals with all the pressures in a fantastic way. Obviously, inside, he’s bound to be a bit annoyed, so to speak, because he hasn’t had a win yet this year, but I think all he’s been lacking is that little bit of luck.”
Sagan spent much of February training at altitude at Sierra Nevada, and though he appeared heavy legged in placing second to Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad shortly afterwards, the fruits of his labours were apparent as he rode to second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this month.
“In terms of his legs and his condition, he’s really on top form,” Gatto said. “I think with a pinch of luck, the results will come.”
A recurring theme of Sagan’s Classics campaigns over the years has been the perceived weakness of his teams, at least in comparison to the praetorian guards devoted to Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.
The move from Cannondale to Tinkoff last year did not improve Sagan’s support to the degree that he needed, though the arrival of Gatto – who raced with him in his final year at Cannondale – is an important addition.
Gatto was an aggressive performer in Sagan’s absence at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, and could serve as a useful foil at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem over the Easter weekend.
“This role suits me very well because I like to ride for a big leader like Peter, but then every now and then, I have the opportunity to race for myself too,” Gatto said. “At Dwars, I could ride for myself, but on Friday it’ll be all for Peter.”
Tinkoff and Sagan will be without the services of the experienced Daniele Bennati on the cobbles this year, however. The Italian, who drove the raid on Tirreno-Adriatico’s penultimate day that cemented Sagan’s podium finish, was a faller at Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
“I think we’ve got a good team for the Classics this year, although Bennati will be a loss,” Gatto said. “He fractured two vertebrae in his crash at Milan-San Remo. It’s a shame, because he would have been a very important point of reference for the team.”
Ultimately, of course, the success or failure of Sagan’s Spring will rest on what he can conjure up over the next three weekends in those frenetic run-ins to Harelbeke, Wevelgem, Oudenaarde and Roubaix.
“Like I said, he’s just lacking that bit of luck,” Gatto said. “The important thing is to have good condition. That’s the only thing he can work on, and he has done. So I think from Friday, we could start to see the fruits of that.”