Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) rocked up to the Strade Bianche pre-race press conference relaxed, smiling and with ruffled hair, as if he had awoken from an afternoon nap. He admitted he has not trained on the dirt roads due to the rain but seemed quietly confident that he can be a contender in his first European race of 2018.
The world champion started his season at the Tour Down Under, winning a stage and racking up a series of placings. Since returning to Europe and visiting the Pope in the Vatican, he has spent a long spell training at altitude in the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain, preparing for his hugely important Spring Classics campaign.
"We're back, the season starts again. The Tour Down Under was like a movie trailer but here we aren't going to the movies," Sagan said as he sat with 2017 Strade Bianche winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), cyclo-cross world champion Wout van Aert (Verandas Willems-Crelan) and 2017 women's winner Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5).
"I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but one thing I know is that I don't think the weather will be good. I've trained at altitude, so it's difficult to understand how I'm going, I'll probably need a few races. I just hope I don't get ill like last year."
Team Sky have been based in Tuscany for much of the week, carrying out recon rides even in the snow. Sagan, meanwhile, has ridden Strade Bianche several times and so has a much more laissez-faire approach.
"No, I haven't ridden on the route," Sagan said with a trademark shrug. "I arrived yesterday and it was raining, so I did the rollers, that's all. Knowing the route could be important but we have a lot of time during the race to see how the conditions are…
"The right race strategy is difficult to work out so you have to decide things during the race. We'll see how the weather is and if the sun comes out. It's better not to think about it. It's going to be the same for everyone, so what can I change about it?"
Sagan dislikes being asked to predict how he or his rivals will perform in a race, but the question is put to him time and time again. Each time he avoids making any serious predictions.
"The winner will be the first to the finish," Sagan deadpanned.
"The conditions are the same for everyone, we all start together. Form? Bike skills and bike tech? It all depends. There are about 200 riders and so 200 different stories to be told during the race."
Can Van Aert win?
Sagan sat next to Van Aert but later admitted that he did not know that the Belgian was also a three-time world champion. He was careful to show respect and praised him for making the switch to road racing but did not seem convinced about his chances of victory.
"I've seen a lot of cyclo-cross riders switch from cross to road, and I think it's a good thing. We'll see later in the season if it was a good choice. For sure a lot of strong riders come from cyclo-cross. It's normal I think," Sagan said.
"But can he win?" A Belgian journalist insisted.
"Everything is possible, no?" Sagan replied.
"For sure, it's going to be better year by year for him. He needs to get some experience in road races. For sure he did some before, but in the WorldTour everything is different."
Not going to die for this race
Sagan's own roots in mountain biking helped him to develop special bike-handling skills and automatically make him a contender for Strade Bianche. Yet he pushed back against any pressure to win and against a provocative suggestion that he failed to win any big races last spring.
"Last spring I won some big races…. Anyway, we race all season, not just in the spring," Sagan said, preferring to remember his third world title in Bergen rather than dwell on his second place at Milan-San Remo, third at Gent-Wevelgem and his crash at the Tour of Flanders.
"Strade Bianche is so hard that it could be a Classic for sure. It's a little earlier than the other Classics but for sure it's a hard race, it's a unique race. Paris-Roubaix is on cobbles and Flanders is on the cobbles and climbs. This is on dirt roads. It's different.
"It's important, too, but I'm not going to die for this race."
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