One day after the inauguration of his Roubaix shower plaque, Bora-Hansgrohe leader Peter Sagan headed to the team presentation of the 2019 Paris-Roubaix in Compiègne. It's the eighth time he has stepped on that stage, and on this occasion, he was presented as defending champion after his first victory last spring.
During the team presentation at the Place Charles de Gaulle on Saturday afternoon, the Slovak champion was by far the most popular rider, causing a big buzz when he stepped out of the team bus. In fact, he was the only rider who received the special treatment of not having to walk his way through the crowd to the podium.
Once near the podium, Sagan passed through the mixed zone almost on autopilot. “I feel very good. We spent all week in Belgium. We did the recon for Paris-Roubaix and now we are here,” Sagan said, before giving short answers to the countless questions that followed.
Aren’t you worried about your shape? “I'm not worried.”
What kind of race do you expect? “Nobody knows.”
You’ve won this race before, will it change your approach? “I'm already used to it from different races.”
Confident in your team? “For sure.”
Why is this a special race? “It's a very hard race. It's all flat but the cobblestones make Roubaix special.”
On a sunny but cold Saturday in northern France, there's more fun things to do than a team presentation, that's obvious. And after a few hectic years in which the flamboyant and exciting rider turned into a brand, there's a bit of fatigue in Sagan.
Despite that evident popularity, worries must be creeping in for Sagan who has endured a below-par spring classics season during which he has seemed to lose his unbeatable aura. His only win so far in 2019 was on the third stage of the Tour Down Under in January. Following that, March saw him struggle with a virus that saw him lose a lot of weight, with his highlight since then a fourth place at Milan-San Remo.
That's as good as it has been though, with the superstar not only failing to win a classic in 2019, but also missing the podium in each race he has contested. His 2019 spring classics record so far reads as thus: fourth at Milan-San Remo, 17th at the E3 BinckBank Classic, 32nd in Gent-Wevelgem, and 11th at the Tour of Flanders.
While there are some caveats – a long break here, a mechanical there – it's not something cycling fans are used to. After being spoilt over the last few years, the Sagan brand almost promises a big win at the classics.
There’s fierce competition too, from the usual challengers, sure. But this season has seen the rise of young wolves like Milano-Sanremo winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Tour of Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) as well as more fresh blood like Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep). The way these riders have raced brings to mind the Sagan from the last few years, though not this year's model.
“The racing style has changed, not our condition, or the better riders or the worse riders are better. All the race is different,” Sagan said when asked about his shape, adding that he felt that a surprise winner on Sunday would be likely.
“Tomorrow is going to be more difficult. It's not Flanders. It's more about the moment. It's about a lot of luck. It's a totally different race than Flanders,” he added. “You never know. Every year is different and you never know in what shape you are. It always depends from results. Even when you're not in shape and you win, then everybody thinks that you're in shape.”
The 2018 Paris-Roubaix winner is often asked before a race what he would expect and he mostly answers with the odd ‘we will see’. Predicting the story of this year's Paris-Roubaix proved impossible for him, and winning the 2018 edition doesn't change that.
"Nothing changes," he said. "This race is so special. Even when you're in top shape, you don't have to win because it's a special race. A lot of things can happen."
"I was already three times in Roubaix that I felt really strong and always something bad happened. It's better not to think and enjoy riding tomorrow. It's hard to enjoy but we'll try,” Sagan said, adding another laugh. “I’m not sure about anything. I can only expect a hard race tomorrow. It's going to be good weather. Maybe hard because it's going to be headwind. We will see tomorrow.”
And off walked Sagan towards the podium where he received a warm welcome from the massed crowds in Compiègne.
Never underestimate Sagan because on Sunday he might well manage a Paris-Roubaix repeat victory, which would be only the sixth in the last 50 years. In that case - as Sagan says - his shape will be regarded to be great. If not, there’s still the Amstel Gold Race and his debut in the revamped Liège-Bastogne-Liège to look out for.