Peter Sagan's struggle with an early-season illness that led to sub-par performances in the spring Classics could be turning around at the Tour of California. The former triple road race world champion is preparing to win a seventh green jersey at this year's Tour de France. Bora-Hansgrohe director Jan Valach says the team back Sagan entirely, and believe that his stage victory in Sacramento on Sunday was exactly the morale-boost that both he and the team needed.
"Yes, we're very happy with that win because it was important for Peter and for Bora-Hansgrohe," Valach told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 2, a 214.5km mountain stage to South Lake Tahoe, on Monday.
"I'm also happy for him that he has come back with this victory, and that he can continue on like this into the season. In the spring, he was sick, and then he found it hard to win at the Classics, even though he was there, but something was missing. So now I'm happy that he can start the second part of his season with a victory."
Sagan's last victory was a stage at the Santos Tour Down Under in January, although it was followed by podium performances in stages at the Vuelta a San Juan and Tirreno-Adriatico. His spring Classics campaign left something to be desired. Even though fourth at Milan-San Remo and fifth at Paris-Roubaix are good results in and of themselves, the cycling world has become accustomed to seeing Sagan win.
He recommitted to the Ardennes Classics but didn't finish the Amstel Gold Race or Flèche Wallonne, and he didn't start Liège-Bastogne-Liège, announcing that he needed more time to recover and train properly for the Tour of California and other summer targets like the Tour de France.
The last time Sagan faced similar scrutiny was during his first season with Tinkoff-Saxo in 2015, when his only early-season victory was a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico. The working relationship between Sagan and team owner Oleg Tinkov soured and, even though he won the overall title at the Tour of California that May, Tinkov had sought legal advice to try to reduce Sagan's salary, citing poor performances.
Despite Sagan's similar setbacks in races this year, Valach told Cyclingnews that Bora-Hansgrohe have been understanding and supportive of his requests to take time off and recover from illness, and that team management are optimistic that he will be back to winning races when he is ready.
"No, we haven't put any pressure on Peter," Valach said. "We are realistic, and we knew that he was sick and that he was waiting day-by-day for a result. Peter was fighting for results in every race. He was there in some of the Classics in the end, but you can sometimes lose, too, and we know that is normal in cycling. Our team was all OK, and there was no stress. We pushed only to go for a result, and maybe he could win, or maybe not, but we have to be understanding."
Sagan punched the air as he sprinted across the stage 1 finish line in Sacramento with the victory on Sunday. Even at the start of stage 2, he seemed upbeat and chatty with the press outside his team bus, while also signing autographs for fans.
"I'm very happy, and I think this is very good for all the team," Sagan said. "It was a long time [since his last victory], and I'm happy to have the yellow jersey, too, even if it's only for one day. We'll see what we can do with some of the other riders on our team. We'll try our best."
Asked if he could win the overall title again at the Tour of California, Sagan flat-out said: "No."
He later elaborated by saying, "I mean, this year is a very hard Tour of California, with a lot of climbs, and so I don't think so. We will see day-by-day, but I don't think that I'll arrive today [stage 2] in the front group."
Sagan finished stage 2 in South Lake Tahoe 17:46 behind stage winner Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep), while runner-up Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) took the overall lead.
Valach agreed that this year's Tour of California would be too hard for Sagan. There were nearly 5,000m of climbing on stage 2, and many of the stages cover roughly 3,000m of climbing. The next summit finish will be on Mt. Baldy on stage 6. Valach said that Sagan likes to change his programme each year, and that he wanted a bigger focus on the spring Classics.
"Every year, Peter does something different than the year before, but he normally comes [to California] after his first races of the season," Valach said. "He did the spring Classics, and now we're here, and we'll see how he does this week.
"The mountain stages are very hard at the Tour of California, especially for the Classics riders. We know that if Peter has the jersey, he'll try to fight to keep it. That will be hard work for him. We also have other riders for the GC like Max Schachmann and Felix Grossschartner, and, for these harder stages, they're good options."
Indeed, Schachmann and Grossschartner finished fifth and 11th in South Lake Tahoe and are now in the top 10 on the general classification heading into stage 3 from Stockton to Morgan Hill on Tuesday. However, Schachmann wasn't as confident in his ability to go for the overall win in California.
"Maybe. I don't know. Probably not," he told Cyclingnews in South Lake Tahoe. "There are strong climbers here. Today's stage had a lot of elevation, but no steep climbs. We'll see what happens. Mt. Baldy will be more selective, and I expect more gaps between the riders.
"But it's always nice to start off the race with a team victory and I'm happy for Peter," Schachmann added. "It always makes for a better mood on the team and a better atmosphere."
There are still five days of racing at the Tour of California, but from this point on, Sagan will be focused on building his form ahead of July where he'll attempt to win a seventh green jersey at the Tour de France.
"It's a long way until the Tour," Valach said. "At this point, we're focused on the winning the green jersey, and then on the races in the second part of the season, and the World Championships in Yorkshire."
Sagan will once again be a favourite to win the rainbow jersey in the north of England later this year – a feat he has accomplished on three consecutive occasions: in 2015 in Richmond, USA, in 2016 in Doha, Qatar, and in 2017 in Bergen, Norway. He lost the title to Alejandro Valverde at the World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, last September but will try to earn it back in five months' time.
"Normally, this would be a good World Championship for Peter because it will be hard, but that race is only one day, and so if you make a mistake, it's over," Valach said. "That's a long way away so, for now, we'll focus on the Tour of California and the Tour de France."