Peter Sagan was widely considered the best neo-pro of 2010 after winning two stages at Paris-Nice and at the Tour of California. He will only be 21 on January 26 but those results and an instinctive, aggressive style of racing have made him the leader of the Liquigas-Cannondale classic team.
Sagan will return to Paris-Nice this year and target Milan-San Remo before heading to Belgium for his first real taste of the cobbled classics. It is still unsure how well he can perform over the longer distances, but the Italian team is quietly confident he could be the surprise of the spring.
"Now I've got more responsibility in the team, I'm expected to get more results, but I've also got more experience after a full season as a professional. Last year I didn't know what I could do. Now I know who I am, that I can win races," he told Cyclingnews at the team's training camp in Sardegna, seemingly unfazed by the pressure.
This time last year, Sagan was a little-known neo-pro in Australia and about to ride the Tour Down Under. He had been a talented mountain biker, winning the 2008 junior World and European titles. But he also had huge road racing ability, taking second in the 2008 junior Paris-Roubaix after going on the attack 80km from the finish. He raced in Italy in 2009 with the Liquigas development team, but apparently didn't even know who Cadel Evans was. He never imagined he would go on to win five important races during the season and rack up another 15 top five placings.
"Before the season I didn't even think I could even win a race," he admitted. "The Tour Down Under was a surprise even for me. I saw that I was up there in the finishes on two stages despite having stitches in me after a crash. That made me realise I could do something. Then I won the stage at Paris-Nice."
Sagan says it as if winning a stage at Paris-Nice is nothing special. Yet how he won in Aurillac and then in Aix-en-Provence showed beyond doubt that he was something special. He had finished fifth in the prologue without really testing his time trial bike or studying the course and then was second on stage two to Limoges. If he had timed his late attack better, he would have won.
"I went too early that first time but got it right the next time," he said, pointing out his ability to quickly learn from his mistakes.
"When I won the second time it was after getting away with Contador and Rodriguez. I knew I could win that day because there weren't any other sprinters with us."
Sagan eventually finished seventeenth overall in Paris-Nice but he had left his mark. He was given a break from racing in April but came back just as strong and aggressive at the Tour of Romandie. He was fifth in the prologue time trial, fifth on stage two and second on stage four. He then headed to the Tour of California and won back to back stages at Bakersfield and Big Bear Lake. Both times he proved he could climb far better than the sprinters and then sprint far better than whoever was left at the head of the race. It is a precious but rare combination of talents.
Gradual start to 2011
Most classics riders are in Australia for the Tour Down Under or will soon head to Qatar and Oman, chasing the sun and early racing so they can hit a peak for the spring classics. But Sagan will have a low profile start to the season and build gradually for April. He is currently at a Liquigas-Cannondale training camp in Sardinia.
"I'm having a quieter start to the season because I get on form pretty quickly," he explained. "I'm going to start the season in Italy at the GP degli Etruschi in early February and then ride the Giro di Sardegna, the Trofeo Laigueglia and then Paris-Nice as my final preparation for the classics. I'm doing Milan-San Remo and then all the races in Belgium."
He shrugs off a lack of experience of racing in Belgium with youthful nonchalance.
"Other riders have more experience than me but I'll try and use that and I've also got my teammates to help me," he said pragmatically. "At the Tour of Flanders I'll watch my rivals, especially people like Boonen and Cancellara, see what they do and then decide if it’s the right thing to do. If I get in a situation where I can win, then I follow my instincts and go for it. What else can I do?"
During the winter Sagan hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after he was caught up in a story of Twitter identity theft. Negative comments about he Liquigas-Cannondale medical staff were posted in his name but he denied having anything to do with them and had the account closed down.
He had suffered with some stomach problems during the season and there was a mysterious tale of parts of an interview disappearing after the Twitter messages. Sagan's rebellious streak stands out as much as talent but both he and the team have flatly denied any problems.
"I never thought it would blow up to be a such big deal," he explained. "I didn't know what was written but the team knew it was not me and we moved quickly to block the Twitter account. The only place for information is my personal website: saganpeter.com."