Peter Sagan turned 30 on Sunday, which was also his first day back at work, his fourth year with Bora-Hansgrohe. Thoughts on entering his fourth decade? "Nothing changed for me," he says, and, in at least one respect, he's right. He is sitting in a conference room at the Del Bono hotel in San Juan, facing questions from a group of reporters about the year ahead. Same as it ever was.
His winter was, too. The off-season may have brought him as far afield as Colombia for the Sagan Fondo in Barranquilla but, by late November, he was once again facing into the nuts and bolts of his existence: a ritual purge of base miles as he steeled himself for his return to racing at the Vuelta a San Juan this week.
"Well, it was ok," Sagan says. "More or less, it's all the same. You have to build your base in the winter and now we have to work on intensity. I didn't do Australia and I prepared myself in Monaco. This is the first race for me and then I'll continue with an altitude training camp. Just different places, but the training is the same on the bike."
The first two stages of the Vuelta a San Juan concluded with bunch finishes, won by Rudy Barbier and Fernando Gaviria. Sagan was dutifully on hand to contest the sprint on each occasion, though perhaps without the same intensity as some of his younger rivals.
He placed sixth on stage 1, fifth the following day and will surely go closer as the week draws on in Argentina, but the desire to risk everything for an early bouquet has diminished since his professional career began 10 years ago.
"I feel also like I changed, I am more interested in the important races than the small races," Sagan says. "It's not possible to keep going from January until November at the same level. It's better to stop and prepare yourself for the important races. That comes, I think, with age."
Sagan has won 113 times over the years, but he has reached a point where quality is prioritised over quantity. Or, as Sean Kelly once put it when commenting on his own career: "Those last number of years, you want to chalk up a big palmarès."
The Slovak can already look back in satisfaction at the headline achievements on his roll of honour – three world titles, seven green jerseys, two monuments – but that doesn't mean he isn't keen on adding to that running tally.
"I'm very happy that I did what I did and won what I won," Sagan said. "But I'm continuing. If I'm on the bike, it's only for one reason: I want to win."
Targeting the Classics and Olympics
The Classics campaign will again see Sagan measure himself against the ancien régime of Deceuninck-QuickStep, as well as the men seemingly revolutionising the Classics, cyclo-cross stars Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. The style of racing, Sagan points out, has changed in instalments since the pavé was a fiefdom ruled primarily by Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.
"If you compare cycling with 10 years ago, when I started, it's much different," Sagan says. "The style of racing is more aggressive, you know. It was not like before, when every team has a leader for GC, sprints or Classics, like Boonen and Cancellara. Now it's like a big anarchy."
Sagan is neither in favour of said anarchy nor against it. It exists, and he has had to adapt. No more or no less. "It depends, it's much harder to control," he says. "Well it is like it is, we have to live with that."
Sagan's seasons have traditionally been divided into three sections, based around the Classics, the Tour de France and the World Championships. This year's calendar is rather more congested, with a Giro d'Italia debut and the Tokyo Olympics added to the schedule. Despite the arduous course, he should be competitive in Japan, though he dismisses the idea that he erred in skipping the road race in Rio in 2016 in favour of the mountain bike event.
"Never," he says. "It was a different period, I had much more time. I did some races for fun in Austria and the Czech Republic to take some points, and it was also a fun thing for me. but with the schedule I have for this year, it would have been almost impossible to go and take some points to qualify me for the Olympic Games."
February in Colombia
In keeping with a routine that began four years ago, Sagan will again eschew racing this February and will instead embark on an extended altitude training camp, this time in Medellin, Colombia.
It means he will have a gap of five weeks between the end of the Vuelta a San Juan and his next race, Strade Bianche, at a time when his rivals are building race rhythm or picking up morale-boosting wins. Sagan, however, is now accustomed to this lonely method of building form.
"It depends on the rider, because everybody is different and reacts differently to altitude. Some people need it more, others less. But now is the period of cycling where everybody is doing altitude, and everybody is spending a lot of time at altitude, and, well, it should help," Sagan says, dismissing the idea that he was the first Classics rider to train at altitude so close to the great rendezvous in April.
"There was also Sky before, but that season went bad for them. A year later, I tried, and it was ok."
Sagan notes that altitude training is itself another way in which cycling has changed since his debut with Liquigas back in 2010. The years, he confesses, have gone by quickly, but then it's all a matter of perspective.
"It's normal," he says. "It's like you are standing on the start of a long race and you are going to stay on the bike for six hours, and maybe it's raining and you're cold. It seems like a never-ending story and one hour passes like five, but then after when you've finished and you're at the line, you say, 'It went by fast'."