Peter Sagan can never quite fly under the radar, but his build-up to the Tour of Flanders has been decidedly quieter than it was twelve months ago, when he was widely tipped as the man most likely to break up the longstanding Fabian Cancellara-Tom Boonen duopoly.
On that occasion, Sagan’s pre-race press conference on the Friday evening before the race was a heavily-attended but decidedly terse affair, as he looked to downplay those lofty expectations. “It’s a race like another one, no?" he said, jadedly.
This time around, Sagan eschewed the formalities of a press conference altogether, limiting himself to an online statement and a couple of brief interviews at the Tinkoff-Saxo hotel near the train station in Kortijk.
Friday had begun with the news that directeur sportif Steven de Jongh and general manager Stefano Feltrin would now divide the duties previously assumed by erstwhile team manager Bjarne Riis, whose contract with Oleg Tinkov’s team was terminated last week.
If changing manager mid-season seems to mirror the actions of a football club, then so too does Tinkov’s new structure, where Feltrin and De Jongh seem to serve as director of cycling and head coach, as it were. And, like a footballer, Sagan posted a carefully-prepared statement on his Facebook page shortly after the change was announced.
The prospect of working with Riis was described as “fundamental” in attracting Sagan to sign from Cannondale last summer, but the Slovak has played a straight bat in dealing with questions on the matter in recent weeks.
“I think that always we have to focus on the future. We have some of the best riders in the peloton, we have a great team of trainers and specialists and together we will work hard to achieve the goals we set,” Sagan wrote on Friday. “I support the management structure our team owner, Oleg Tinkov, has chosen in order to move forward and I trust that under the guidance of Stefano and Steven, Tinkoff-Saxo will again be one of the world's top pro cycling teams. I'm looking forward now to attack Flanders and Paris-Roubaix."
On Sunday, Sagan lines up among the principal contenders for the Tour of Flanders, albeit without quite the same fervent expectation as in 2013 and 2014. A stage win in Porto Sant’Elpidio at Tirreno-Adriatico – his first victory since last June – suggested that he was about to return to form just in time for the Classics, but the evidence since has been contradictory.
Sagan showed impressive strength to bridge across to the leaders on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo but then made a couple of costly positional errors over the other side and had to settle for fourth place in the sprint on Via Roma.
At E3 Harelbeke last week, Sagan climbed the Oude Kwaremont with arguably greater facility than he had ever shown in the past, bridging across to the winning move of Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) but, then, inexplicably, dropped out of contention on the flat run-in to the finish.
With Harelbeke in mind, the bookmakers have been cautious on Sagan’s chances this Sunday, and most are placing him at longer odds than Thomas, Stybar, Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
Speaking to Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Ciro Scognamiglio on Friday evening, Sagan reiterated that he had no explanation for his unexpected collapse in the finale of E3 Harelbeke. “I don’t know. I ate well too. It was strange,” he said. “I never had an experience like that.”
While most anticipate that the absence of Boonen and Cancellara through injury will make for a more open Tour of Flanders than normal, Sagan was cagey on how precisely the race will change without them. “It’s a pity that Boonen and Cancellara aren’t here but the race is still hard, with 200 riders at the start, so it’s still dangerous. Whether it will be more open or closed, I don’t know,” he said.
On the notion that his has been a quieter build-up to the Tour of Flanders than a year ago, meanwhile, Sagan was succinct: “I think there’s always expectation around me.”