Looking relaxed and rested, with his sunglasses pushed back on top of his wavy, brown hair, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) took his spot in the front row of the Tour of California press conference with a familiarity he’s built over the past five years as the race’s most prolific stage winner and a five-time consecutive winner of the green points jersey.
But Sagan found himself in unfamiliar ground during the media gathering Friday in Sacramento, where he had to respond to recent public statements by team owner Oleg Tinkov, who wrote on Cyclingnews earlier this week that his star rider seems to have “lost something.”
“He’s the one who needs to find out why,” Tinkov wrote. “And he’s the one who needs to change something and start winning again. I cannot do much.”
Sagan has won just a single race – stage 6 at Tirenno-Adriatico – so far this year after signing with the Russian squad in the offseason. The 25-year-old Slovakian has finished second four times this season, and he was fourth at both Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders. He finished a disappointing 23rd in his most recent outing at Paris-Roubaix in April.
Sagan’s results this year have been a far cry from the gawdy numbers he piled up in previous seasons, and Tinkov lamented publicly that he is paying Sagan a lot of money with little to show for it.
“[I’m] paying him a big cheque and he’s not performing (laughs)," Tinkov wrote. “That’s not good.”
When asked for a response on Friday, however, Sagan took the high road and deflected the question.
“First of all, I want to speak with him eye to eye, not here in the press conference,” Sagan said.
The Tinkoff team owner also wrote that his presence in the team car at races – in place of fired former team manager Bjarne Riis – will bring added pressure to riders and drive them to perform better. Sagan also deflected questions about whether added pressure from Tinkov would be helpful.
“I don’t know if it’s about pressure,” Sagan said. “I’m riding for myself and for the team. I ride the bike because I like riding, and then I’m here.”
Sagan and Tinkov agree on one thing for sure: both of them are hoping the rider can rediscover the previous level of success that has so far mostly eluded him at Tinkoff-Saxo. Tinkov also hinted that Sagan won't have the same freedom during July in France.
“It’s a good chance for him,” Tinkov wrote of Sagan's opportunities in California. “At the Tour de France we’ll have a different goal. We’re not expecting him to win a lot of stages because his role will be to help Alberto win the Tour de France. That’s his role in July.”
Sagan admitted that his trip to California – where he has notched 11 stage wins over five years, the latest coming last year in Pasadena – was two-pronged.
“In my professional career I’ve been at Tour of California my first year until now,” he said. “Every year I am here, and for sure I want to do my best and win some stages for me and for the team, and also for fun in America.”
Sagan said this year’s racing program is similar to previous seasons, and he’s hoping the familiar and friendly California race will help him jump start the second half of the year.
“My last race was Paris-Roubaix, and I’ve had one month of rest and training,” he said. “Now I’m here in California to start the second part of my season before the Tour de France. I think it’s a good start and it will continue.”