Fresh from his second victory at Gent-Wevelgem, world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) returns to Belgium this weekend billed as perhaps the top favourite for Tour of Flanders victory, alongside three-time winner Fabian Cancellara.
“The Tour of Flanders is extremely important. It’s one of the three races that I would like to put on my palmarès, like Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix,” Sagan said in an interview with Het Nieuwsblad, published on Friday. “I'm already six years trying to win this mega prize, but it’s not easy.”
Sagan’s 2011 debut apart, he has lined out at the start in Bruges each year burdened by considerable expectation. After a promising 5th in 2012, Sagan was the last man to resist Cancellara the following year, before finally yielding on the Paterberg.
At that point, a Ronde victory seemed an inevitability, but nothing is ever straightforward in Belgium in April. An off-colour Sagan could only manage 14th in 2014, while last year, he was unable to match Alexander Kristoff, and then faded suddenly in the finishing straight to hand third place to Greg Van Avermaet.
Sagan’s victory at the Richmond World Championships last September seemed to rebut the notion that the additional distance of the Monument Classics had been his undoing over the years, though doubts persist over his decision-making in the finale of the biggest races.
A rapid sprinter, an increasingly powerful rouleur and blessed with the ability to accelerate on punchy climbs, Sagan has arguably the most varied armoury of any Ronde contender, but the surfeit of choice brings its own problems.
“Belgian races are more difficult than the others: the right strategy does not exist,” Sagan said. “It’s no coincidence that the record holders for the Tour of Flanders have only won it three times. If you take Milan-San Remo, you’ll have fifty riders together for the last two climbs. At the Ronde, you can have just two riders in front on the last time over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. It’s totally different.”
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By his own admission, Sagan has often struggled on the Kwaremont over the years, though he performed notably well on the climb en route to his second place finish at E3 Harelbeke last week.
“The first section to the village is very tough, then you get to the long zone through the fields where the wind can have an effect. In the middle, you have a small bump, then there’s the final piece to the wider road,” Sagan said. “If you don’t feel well, or you don’t know how to approach it, this is deadly.”
The short, steep Paterberg, by contrast, seems better-tailored to Sagan’s characteristics. “I love it,” he said. “On the Paterberg you have to consider the descent too. Over the top you need to hit full speed on the way down.”
Sagan described the list of favourites for the Ronde as comprising “the usual suspects” and dismissed the idea of basing his race around perennial contenders Cancellara and Tom Boonen. “You don’t need to follow their wheel, you should just watch look to be in the top ten or top twenty in all of the crucial areas. Every time, the Ronde is a different story.”
Ten years ago, Boonen followed the script at the Tour of Flanders by winning in the rainbow jersey of world champion, the last man to achieve that feat. Though still searching for his first Monument win, Sagan looked to put his endeavour in perspective.
“It's not like I’m going to Flanders or Roubaix with the idea that the world will end on Monday,” Sagan said. “I try to relax. I don’t stress myself with things like: ‘I have to stay back there or be up front there.’”