No sooner had Peter Sagan (Cannondale) retold how he had fended off the challenge of Niki Terpstra and Geraint Thomas in the finale of E3 Harelbeke, than the questioning at his winner’s press conference turned to his chances at next weekend’s Tour of Flanders.
For any other 24-year-old, victory in the semi-classic would be feted as an achievement in itself, but considering the expectation that has built up around Sagan during his short career, each win seems to be viewed merely as another step in his progression. Heavy lies the crown for the man who is – for now at least – still the king in waiting.
E3 Harelbeke joins Gent-Wevelgem in a burgeoning palmarès, but the anticipated debut monument win has yet to arrive. That particular coronation was anticipated by many at Milan-San Remo last weekend, but Sagan struggled in the cold and rain on the Riviera and had to settle for 10th place.
Sagan bristled when asked if he now felt any particular obligation to confirm his lofty credentials by winning the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix this spring. "You ‘mustn’t’ nothing in your life," he said. "I don’t ‘must’ nothing in the life, just die. It’s important, yeah, but I have also a future in front of me. Of course, I want to do well but the important thing for me is to do the maximum in the race, and then I am glad."
Flitting back and forth between English and his steadier Italian during the press conference, Sagan’s responses ranged from matter-of-fact descriptions of his victory to scarcely-concealed irritation at questions regarding the imminent future and his predictions for De Ronde.
Asked what Harelbeke had taught him about his chances against Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen at the Tour of Flanders, for instance, Sagan said: "I don’t know, we will see. Why do you always ask me these questions about the future? I am not magic, no? We will see. Maybe I’ll crash after 20 kilometres, I don’t know."
Sagan gave short shrift, too, to a question about the heavy criticism he had faced in the Italian press following Milan-San Remo, with Moreno Argentin and Francesco Moser among those wheeled out to pour scorn on his display. "I don’t read newspapers, because journalists are there to write," he said curtly.
Mercifully, Sagan was more expansive when asked about the race he had just won. Indeed, it is easy to be blinded by the Slovak’s potential, but there is already much to consider in the here and now, and he showed strength and poise to land victory at E3 Harelbeke.
When Geraint Thomas (Sky), Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) went clear on the Oude Kwaremont, Sagan carefully gauged his effort to catch them on the descent. On the following Karnemelkbeekstraat, Sagan had the nous to put in a sharp little dig near the summit to see off Degenkolb, his most dangerous rival in the event of a sprint.
When the dust settled on the run-in to Harelbeke, Sagan found himself in front with Thomas, Terpstra and a second QuickStep rider – Stijn Vandenbergh – for company. "They decided that they wouldn’t pull in the last five kilometres because they were waiting for Boonen in the sprint, but in the end, I decided to wait and see how my legs were in the sprint, too," Sagan said of the QuickStep pair.
In the event, the four-man sprint followed the form guide, with Sagan easily seeing off the challenge of Terpstra to claim the win, but given his travails following an early bike change, the Slovak admitted that he could well have been caught short in the finale.
"I wasn’t very convinced that I could win today with all the energy I wasted in changing bikes, chasing back on and then doing 40 kilometres on a bike with a slightly different size," he said. "On the Kwaremont, I was dropped a bit but then I got back on and I starting feeling quite good from there."
Once in the streets of Harelbeke, a modest satellite town on the fringes of Kortrijk, there was precious little doubt about the final result, and Sagan duly collected his second classic win on Belgian roads after last year’s Gent-Wevelgem.
Not that Sagan will necessarily appreciate the reminder, but five times in the past ten years, the winner at Harelbeke has gone on to triumph at the Tour Flanders a week later. Equally pertinently, perhaps, just two men account for those five doubles – Boonen and Cancellara. Time will tell if Sagan will join them.