Peter Sagan is the big favourite for Saturday's Milan-San Remo. While some riders are lucky to have one of the rare qualities needed to win the Italian Classic, Sagan seems to have all of them. He can go with any attacks on the Poggio and still win the sprint on the Via Roma if the race comes back together.
Sagan will again ride Milan-San Remo as world champion and is hoping to join the exclusive club of rainbow jersey wearers to have won La Classicissima on the Via Roma.
For most other riders, such expectation and pressure before the first Monument Classic of the season would weigh heavy on their shoulders and probably eat away at their ability to perform. Sagan seems able to shrug off the pressure as easily as he avoided the woman and her dog crossing the road in the final time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico.
While other teams are wracking their brains on how to beat Sagan on Saturday, he is enjoying the final days before the race with his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates near Lake Garda. He will get to spend time with his wife Katarina and do some final training but he will not spend hours studying old race video, thinking about his rivals or worrying about his form.
"Thinking too much about cycling is one of the least problems I have," Sagan quipped at the end of Tirreno-Adriatico as he shared his final thoughts on Milan-San Remo.
"I don't feel that kind of pressure anymore. I have to be a favourite for every race, so after seven years I'm used to it," he pointed out.
"I'm just happy to have such a special moment. I can only hope it lasts as long as possible."
Keeping his feet on the ground
Sagan is clearly enjoying life on and off the bike. By winning the sprint stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and then beating the Grand Tour riders on the tough hilly stage to Fermo, he confirmed he was on form as the Spring Classics loom large on the horizon.
Last season Sagan won Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, three stages and a fifth green points jersey at the Tour de France, and a second consecutive world title in Doha. He turned 27 in January and is clearly at the peak of his career. Racing comes naturally to him, with his tactics formed by intuition and inspiration rather than a pre-planned game plan and a power-meter.
Greg Van Avermaet has suggested Sagan is the Merckx of his generation. Francesco Moser described him as a combination of Beppe Saronni and Roger De Vlaeminck. The Belgian Classics winner criticised Sagan's growing mane of hair last year and remains proud of his own palmares, which includes victories in all five of cycling's monument Classics.
Sagan has no plans to target Liege-Bastogne-Liege or Il Lombardia for now. He brushes off any criticism as easily as his flicks his long hair. He rarely boasts about his ability, using humour, modesty and his deep laugh as a shield against criticism.
"Why am I so modest? Because man can't fly without an aeroplane. We've got to keep our feet on the ground," he said.
The secrets of Milan-San Remo
Sagan is no expert on cycling history. He perhaps doesn't know that Eddy Merckx won Milan-San Remo seven times or that Tom Boonen has always failed to find a day of grace and a fast finish that is needed to win the longest race on the calendar, the one that is the hardest to win because it is so easy to lose.
He jokes that Milan-San Remo is his favourite race because it has "the finish I like best because it's close to home."
Of course, Sagan wants to win as much as any of his rivals and then head home to Monte Carlo to celebrate. He knows that they will be trying to work out how to beat him as much as they will be trying to win the race.
Sagan knows that support from his Bora-Hansgrohe team will be limited in the finale of Milan-San Remo, he knows he will have to fight mano-a-mano with all his rivals if he wants to win. Despite the odds being against him, Sagan seems ready and able to turn the tables on Quick-Step Floors' strength in depth, to match the late attacks on the Poggio by Greg van Avermaet and others, and he is capable of matching the sprinters' speed on the Via Roma.
He is also ready to use other team's tactics to his favour and perhaps even decide who wins if he realises he cannot.
"We'll see what happens on Saturday. I'm just happy that Tirreno-Adriatico went well and that my form is good," he said.
"It's also nice that if I don't win, I can somehow decide who wins," he adds with yet another laugh. "Of course I can't do everything, but I can play with the others a bit."
Sagan admits he does occasionally ride from Monte Carlo to Italy to train on the Cipressa and Poggio. But he insists that reconnaissance and knowing the secrets of the climb is not the key win Milan-San Remo.
"The important thing is to feel good. If you don't feel good, then you end up in going over the edge...," he says of the Poggio descent, ruling out the chances of attacking on the descent.
"In truth, a lot depends on the wind on the Poggio. For many years now, there's been a headwind and so it's difficult to get away and make the difference. However cycling keeps evolving and so if a rider feels good, then for sure they can get away. You simply a need a good day."
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