Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) showed off his twin talents as a strongman and a sprinter en route to second place at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. After a breakaway attempt in the company of Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) was snuffed out, he simply dusted himself down and went toe to toe with winner Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) in the finishing straight.
Slugging it out with Classics royalty at the tender age of 22 augurs well for Sagan’s future as a contender on the cobbles, but the Slovak may also be left wondering if his rally off the front cost him the energy that might otherwise have brought him a maiden Classics victory.
Sagan was the quickest to react when Cancellara tested the waters with by accelerating over the top of the final climb of the Monteberg, with 33km still to race.
"After the last time we did the Kemmelberg, I tried to get away in a break with Cancellara," he said, as though hitching a ride with the Swiss locomotive were as straightforward as catching a bus.
Indeed, Sagan did far more than just jump aboard, and his consistent turns on the front helped them push clear of the group of favourites. After Milan-San Remo last weekend, Cancellara will surely have been pleased to have found so willing an accomplice but the pair ultimately had few collaborators when they bridged across to the stragglers from the day’s early break.
"As you saw they didn’t want to pull with us, and a group came back on behind," said Sagan, who then returned to the role of sprinter when they were swallowed up with a little over 20km to go. Although well piloted by Daniel Oss in the finale, Sagan had to be content with second place behind Boonen, who judged his effort best into the headwind in the finishing straight.
"Daniel Oss was very good in the finale and led out the sprint for me but Boonen was the strongest today and he won well," Sagan said matter-of-factly.
Boonen was fulsome in his praise of Sagan afterwards, but wondered if the youngster would benefit from a more experienced Classics rider on his team to show him the ropes.
"I was trying to ride with Cancellara and Boonen, but it all comes with time. For now, it’s still good, but certainly for Flanders you need more experience," Sagan agreed.
Mechanical problems compromised his Ronde debut twelve months ago, but a year older, and with another strong start to the season under his belt, Sagan will be aiming to make more of an impact this time around.
"I feel good, like we saw already at Tirreno-Adriatico, so we’ll see. I’ll do De Panne this week, and I’ll try and do as little as possible there so that I arrive in good condition at Flanders. Then we’ll see how it goes."
Sagan will forgo Paris-Roubaix this year in order to join forces with Vincenzo Nibali at Amstel Gold Race, but his Flemish hosts were nodding their approval when he explained why he has been enjoying his stay in Belgium so far.
"The first 150km are hard because there’s a lot of confusion in the peloton and I don’t like that, but once the bunch breaks up a bit, it’s a lot better," he said. "In general, I like these races, they’re different from the others."