He’s won three World Championships, a record-breaking seven green jerseys in the Tour de France, and titles at Classics galore, but for over a decade the space in Peter Sagan’s palmares marked 'Giro d’Italia' has remained stubbornly blank. On Saturday in Palermo, though, that will change, finally.
"Peter, welcome, we’ve been waiting for this moment for so long," was how one particularly enthusiastic Giro d’Italia journalist prefaced his question to Sagan, 30, in Friday’s press conference.
But despite his nine appearances at the Tour de France, and four at the Vuelta, and understandably high local expectations, as the Bora-Hansgrohe pro himself hinted, it would be unwise to make too many zealous predictions of runaway Sagan success.
That’s partly because as a Giro novice, his initial plan - to do the Giro d’Italia in May and then go on to the Tour - was already a voyage in the dark. And it’s also relatively rare for him to do two Grand Tours in a year. The last time was in 2018, when he followed a very successful Tour, featuring three stage wins and green in Paris, with an unremarkable if consistent Vuelta a España.
But what has really changed matters, of course, are the upheavals in the 2020 calendar that have left the 12-year pro facing utterly new challenges, starting with the fact that less than two weeks ago the Slovakian was battling on the roads of France - unsuccessfully - for an eighth green jersey.
"I’ve come in from the Tour de France, I was neither very good or very bad there, just lacking a bit of luck and I came out of it fine," Sagan said on Friday. "But I’ve never done two Grand Tours in such a short period. It’s been a strange year, unique.
"I had decided to do the Giro because that was the decision at the start of the year and also I was at the Giro presentation, so here I am. I’m going to try to win some stages and then I will look at what I can do in the points jersey competition."
However, Sagan recognised it had not been straightforward to disconnect after the Tour de France and then build up for the Giro in such a short turnaround time.
His strategy, he said, had been to "go home to Monaco, I spent all the time I could with my son, did some short training, tried to relax mentally. Easy stuff."
Whether the rest and relaxation will prove sufficient to recharge his batteries, only the Giro itself will reveal. But it’s not just the different dates and the intensity of the racing calendar that will make the Giro such an unpredictable event for even a seasoned racer like Sagan.
"Results are not always linked strictly to race condition. I finished in the top five of the Tour in six stages. We’ll have to see who my rivals are in the first part of the race, which riders are getting tired and so on. So we’ll see how things advance," he said.
'You can have ups and downs in a career'
If 2020 is exceptional for his Giro start, then also for one race Sagan missed for the first time since 2009 was the recent World Championships. However, and more so, given its importance in his career, the fight for the rainbow jersey in Imola was near-obligatory viewing for the Slovak last Sunday.
"I watched it on TV, I think it was very hard, but I think Julian Alaphilippe will be a great world champion, I’m very happy it’s him," Sagan said.
But if questions about the World Championships were almost obligatory on Thursday, given his massive fan base, one journalist reminded Sagan that when it comes to how cycling’s professionals are handling the pandemic in terms of their supporters and racing, he’s also a reference point.
"We’re in a bubble and we don’t get much exposure to our supporters, so in one way it’s more relaxed, we don’t do any selfies and stuff like that. But on the other side it’s difficult to wear masks and do the tests all the time, I prefer a normal kind of cycling to this. It’s very complicated, now, here and everywhere," said Sagan.
"But we can’t complain too much, we just need to do what we can in these difficult conditions."
Yet no matter how strange the year, the fact remains that this season has been difficult for Sagan himself, too, as a racer, quite apart from failing to retain the green jersey in the Tour for only the second time since 2012. The 15-month span from 2019 to 2020 has also been the longest period in his career without winning, since a stage of the Tour and the green jersey in 2019.
Sagan was asked if the fact that it’s not so easy to win now make him angry or more motivated, to which he gave a very even-handed answer.
"I’ve collected a lot of good results, and I want to keep fighting, but during my career I understand that you can have ups and downs," Sagan said. "It’s also true this year there have not been so many races, but also in the races I’ve done, I have been up there."
But there’s no denying, either, that as the last event on his program for 2020, the Giro d’Italia will be Sagan’s last opportunity to step on the winner’s podium, such familiar territory to the Slovak in the past in so many other races. But in the Giro, come what may, for Sagan this is a new racing experience altogether.
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