Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) arrived in Belgium on Thursday to kick off his Classics campaign and is keen to use the hills and cobbles that line the routes of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne this weekend to get himself back into the flow of racing.
The world champion has spent a month away from competition, and he was certainly in a laid back mood as he breezed his way through a press conference in Kortrijk on Friday afternoon in his own inimitable style.
“It passes the time faster,” he joked when asked about racing on the cobbles of northern Belgium and France. “On the road you have just pedalling and watching the front – nothing to do.”
He offered up another off-beat response when discussing his decision to change his season structure and spend time at an altitude camp before dropping into the Belgian cycling season’s Opening Weekend for the first time since his neo-pro year in 2010.
“In life, you have to try things,” he stated with mock grandiosity, with his team staff later insisting that the apparent lack of seriousness does in fact belie a genuine hunger to achieve and excel.
In any case, this weekend might not matter quite as much to Sagan as it does to some others. His only competitive outing so far this year came at the The Tour de San Luis in January and since then he has eschewed the other early-season stage races in favour of a three-week stint in the Sierra Nevada.
“I want to take these races more like…” he says, gesturing with his hands to indicate he’ll be taking things fairly easy. “I want to see; it’s the first race after one month. I still need some more race kilometres. Now I went down from altitude and I want to just see my condition, and do a good two days. Then we will see in the next two months, in the more important races, what I can do."
The focus, naturally, is on the bigger races that come towards the end of March and early April – races where he is yet to make a true breakthrough. The Slovak has wins at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem to his name, but hasn’t been able to get past the second step of the podium in a Monument – a feat that, due to the richness of his talent, has been expected of him for some time now.
Sagan seemed unconcerned about whether or not now is the time to take a step forward in the Classics, but he did stress the importance of this weekend in laying the foundations and setting the tone for what’s ahead.
“I need to start racing,” he said. “This will be a good race to try, to be in the group and get used to riding in a Belgian group because it’s so different to normal racing.
“I did a good preparation before this part of the season, and now for sure I will have some chance to compare myself against the other riders.”
Tinkoff’s head directeur sportif at the races, Lars Michaelsen, echoed Sagan by playing down his chances of success at Omloop or Kuurne, but did argue that his rider will naturally be one of the strongest in the races.
“We have a question mark. Since he’s been at the Sierra Nevada, guys have been racing in Dubai, Qatar, Oman, all these races, La Méditeranéenne, [Tour du] Haut Var, all these races, and he has done nothing,” Michaelsen said. “They are ahead of him in the rhythm and the race kilometres and this is what could be his disadvantage.
“We have cold and windy conditions, so what would suit Peter the best tomorrow is if there’s a selection where he, by natural forces, is just there. If it’s getting too strategic and tactical, he will not be there, but if it’s down to arm wrestling, he’ll be there.”