Absent-mindedly referring to E3 Harelbeke as “Arenberg” and describing the Tour of Flanders as “the Hell of the North” would normally be considered a grave faux pas in the heart of Flemish cycling country, but the normal rules do not seem to apply to Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling).
The Slovak is not a regular 23-year-old bike rider, nor is he a typically wide-eyed Tour of Flanders hopeful. He bowled into his pre-race press conference in Kortrijk on Friday evening with the air of a man who simply couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, wholly unperturbed by his status as one of two outright favourites for the win on such hallowed terrain.
The other, of course, is Fabian Cancellara, and their burgeoning rivalry continued into last weekend’s racing. Cancellara triumphed at E3 Harelbeke and Sagan responded in kind at Gent-Wevelgem, and a degree of verbal jousting was anticipated in their press conferences on Friday. Cancellara had obliged by noting: “We are one-one now, and we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
Sagan was circumspect when asked how on earth he would go about stopping Cancellara at the Tour of Flanders.
“It’s a hard question to answer,” Sagan said with a smile. “I don’t know, we’ll just have to see in the race what to do and we’ll have to see how Fabian and the others respond. But there are a lot of other strong rivals too, not just him. It’s about staying in front.”
An attempt to reignite the debate over Cancellara’s patrician disdain for Sagan’s exuberant victory celebrations was quickly doused.
“We’ve already talked about this before,” Sagan said, trotting out the response he gave on the eve of Milan-San Remo for a fresh airing. “I’m not sure if everything written in the papers was true. I spoke with Fabian in the bunch about it and it didn’t seem to me that he was annoyed.”
If losing Cancellara’s wheel on the Oude Kwaremont at E3 Harelbeke had dented Sagan’s confidence, he wasn’t showing it, saying that the race has served as an important lesson ahead of the main event on Sunday.
“They say Arenberg [sic] is a mini Flanders, no? I’ve done it the last two years and racing it helps you to get to know the climbs and understand that a race like this can be decided at any point – with 30km to go, or in a sprint at the end,” Sagan said. “And if I’m feeling good on Sunday, then the Kwaremont isn’t going to be a problem.”
Indeed, while Sagan was reluctant to overstate his chances, he was also loathe to acknowledge any weaknesses, including his youthful supporting team. “Maybe we don’t have a lot of leaders like Omega Pharma and BMC, but I think that could be a plus for us,” Sagan said. “Here, everybody knows who he has to ride for.”
Sagan was similarly reticent to confess to making errors during last year’s Tour of Flanders. Ill fortune, he said, rather than inexperience, had cost him his chance of following the winning break. “I don’t know if you’d call them errors, more like bad luck,” he said. “I was caught behind a crash before the second last time up the Paterberg. I had to work hard to get back on, and then I was stuck in the group when the move went on the Kwaremont.”
For all his nonchalance, Sagan must surely have begun to harbour nagging doubts his chances of winning a major Classic this year when he lost out to Gerald Ciolek at Milan-San Remo and then fell some way short of Cancellara at Harelbeke. Victory at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday has assuaged fears that some intangible factor was missing from the extensive arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
“I think it was very important to win there so that I could be more tranquillo ahead of Flanders,” Sagan conceded. “It showed that my condition is good, and Gent-Wevelgem is a classic in its own right, an important race.”
The biggest objective
The grand stage, however, is the Tour of Flanders, and Sagan is a man keen to live up to his billing. He may have been coy about divulging whether he has dreamt up a victory celebration to top last Sunday’s wheelie, but he made no secret of his ambition for the Ronde.
“This is the biggest objective of the early part of the season for me,” Sagan said. “All of my preparation, everything I’ve done, has been built around this race. We’ll see afterwards with the Tour de France and the Worlds, but for now, this is all I’m thinking about.”
On Friday morning, Sagan took the opportunity to ride the finale of the Tour of Flanders, including the Oude Kwaremont, where Tom Boonen predicts the winning move will take shape, and the Paterberg, which Boonen reckons Sagan can climb quicker than anyone else.
Asked if he had learnt anything, Sagan smiled broadly. “Of course, but this isn’t a different Flanders to last year,” he said. “The muri are still the same as they were last year. It was just a reminder that I will have to suffer.”
Cue appreciative nods of the head from the sages of the Flemish press. Sagan may muddle the names, but the language of the Flemish Classics is one he has picked up quickly all the same.