Peter Sagan is not considered a top favourite for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders after losing much of his February training to a COVID-19 infection. However, the 2016 champion is keen to show he is not past his best and provide a response to Bora-Hansgrohe team manager Ralph Denk, who recently questioned if he should renew the Slovakian’s contract for 2022 or invest in younger riders.
Sagan turned 31 in January and is in his 12th season at WorldTour level. During his career, he has won 114 individual races, including three world titles, seven Tour de France green points jerseys, three editions of Gent-Wevelgem as well as Flanders and the 2018 edition of Paris-Roubaix.
He has been the biggest personality in the peloton for almost a decade, and is often the biggest earner with reports of an annual salary of close to €5million. However, the arrival of a new generation of riders, lead by Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel in the Classics, has sparked a sea change in the peloton, with teams chasing the next great thing and casting off older riders.
During an interview in German newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger on Thursday, Denk questioned the need for his team to extend with Sagan for 2022.
“We are very grateful for what Sagan has done for us. The sponsors have received a lot of attention thanks to him but he is entering the autumn of his career,” Denk was reported as saying.
“And he's one of the best paid professionals in the peloton. We just have to weigh up: Do we still want to afford it? Or is it better to invest the money in younger riders?"
Sagan avoided questions about his future at the recent Volta a Catalunya, where he took a stage victory, but on Friday he responded in an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews, also talking about his hopes and ambitions for the Tour of Flanders.
“I don’t know if Ralph said exactly what was written in the media, I haven’t read it and sometimes a phrase in an interview gets taken out of context,” Sagan said, carefully choosing his words.
“I honestly don’t feel old. I’m 31, I don’t feel in the autumn of my career and I think I’ve shown I can still win races even if my spring has been hampered by the COVID-19 virus.
“I’ve been busy racing so I haven’t yet sat down to talk with Ralph, so my future has still to be decided. I’ve had some great years at Bora-Hansgrohe but if Ralph sees me as past my best then that’s his opinion. If he thinks he doesn’t need me to win races for the team, I’ll be the first person to try to find a team that really wants me.”
Sagan has been in Belgium since Wednesday, after his teammates and staff were allowed out of quarantine to ride Dwars door Vlaanderen following Matt Walls' positive COVID-19 test last week. He has spent the last two days doing some final training, and rode a recon of the Flanders route on Friday.
His own COVID-19 quarantine and return to racing at Tirreno-Adriatico means he has not yet raced in Belgium since the final months of 2019, but he knows the roads almost as well as a local. Riding the Volta a Catalunya has boosted his form and his stage win has lifted his morale for the Tour of Flanders.
“I’ve got a chance, you never know….” he told Cyclingnews of his chances of victory on Sunday. “I feel good but I’m not quite at my best. I was off the bike for three weeks.
“I’ve done all I could to be back to my best but I’m riding Flanders without any Classics racing, so it’s difficult to understand how I’ll do. The Ronde always shows who is the best and strongest on the day, there’s no getting away from that.”
Sagan won the 2016 Tour of Flanders, becoming only the sixth man to do so in the rainbow jersey, after joining an attack before the final assault of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. He then dropped Sep Vanmarcke and time trialed alone to victory.
Fabian Cancellara chased to finish second in his final appearance at the race, the two subsequently making up after a spat that had lasted since the 2012 Tour de France when Sagan sat on Cancellara’s wheel and then won a sprint.
Now, Sagan is the veteran of the pack, with Van Aert and van der Poel the big favourites.
“There are three big favourites plus lots of others,” Sagan suggested. “I’d also put Alaphilippe up there with them and he’s got the Deceuninck-QuickStep team too, which makes it much more difficult for everyone.
“I know how to win as a favourite. It’s not easy but it can be done and any of those three could win on Sunday. But everyone else has a chance too, or else we wouldn’t be in Belgium... Look at Milan-San Remo, the big three didn’t win. That gives me hope for Sunday.”
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.