There is nothing quite like a dash of polemica to heighten the sense of anticipation on the eve of Milan-San Remo, and when the media gathered to hear Peter Sagan's pre-race thoughts on Friday afternoon, it was no surprise that Fabian Cancellara's recent criticism of the Slovak's style was top of the agenda.
Speaking at Tirreno-Adriatico during the week, Cancellara had told reporters that he would not collaborate with Sagan if the pair went clear at Milan-San Remo on Sunday, citing the way the Cannondale youngster had sat on his wheel before winning stage 1 of last year's Tour de France in Seraing as exhibit A in his case against Sagan.
Cancellara, it should be noted, has previously spoken in this regard. In 2011, frustrated by the queue of riders lined up on his wheel at the Tour of Flanders, he famously warned his rivals that they would need "to fasten their seatbelts" ahead of Paris-Roubaix the following weekend.
It is the first time, however, that Cancellara has trained his inner Alex Ferguson squarely on Sagan, and – perhaps even more than bookmakers' short odds – that is an indication in itself of the expectations on Sagan's shoulders this spring as he chases his first classic victory.
Sagan seemed unperturbed by Cancellara's words when they were put to him at Cannondale's pre-race press conference in Milan, and while reluctant to fan the flames, he couldn't resist a gentle dig of his own at his rival's psyche.
"This year if I'm in front with Cancellara, the risk for him is that if we get pulled back, then he won't win the bunch sprint whereas I can still try and win in a group sprint," Sagan said. "I have two chances. So if he doesn't work on the front, maybe I'll just wait for the group with him, I don't know.
"If he's talking like that about me, saying that he wouldn't do turns with me on the front, then maybe he is a bit afraid and that's to my advantage, no?"
Cancellara's other grievance against Sagan appears to be his colourful collection of victory celebrations, but the man in question seemed unconvinced. "I don't think that's what he said, I know how journalists work," he dead-panned. "Fabian already spoke to me about this at the Tour de France. I said then, and I've always said it, that I didn't celebrate like that out of a lack of respect – I respect everybody – I just wanted to bring a bit of spettacolo to the races that I won. Some people like it, others don't, but everybody is different."
Some are more different than others, of course, and it is Sagan's rare ability to win either in a bunch sprint or going on the attack has marked him out as the five-star favourite for Milan-San Remo, yet such versatility is perhaps not always an advantage in a race as tactically complex as La Classicissima. While Sagan talks happily of his options, that abundance of choice could just as easily become a dilemma on Sunday afternoon – should he follow the moves on the Poggio or hold his fire for a bunch finish?
Sagan was giving little away. "We'll see if the difference is made on the Poggio," he said. "I think I'm in good condition, and I'll try and hold on there and then see how many teammates we have after that. It's very tactical and it's hard to make a prediction.
"In the two years that I've done Milan-San Remo, it's been won and lost on the Cipressa and the Poggio, so if you're still up there at that point, you're already on the way to doing well."
Sagan's similarly precocious teammate Moreno Moser could prove a very useful foil in the finale, although Cannondale will be mindful that they didn't manage to make their numbers count twelve months ago, when Vincenzo Nibali followed the winning move on the Poggio and finished 3rd, while Sagan swept up 4th place in the bunch sprint behind.
"I always look to live in the present," Sagan said when asked about last year, and he was similarly unmoved by the grim prognosis for the weather. "It can be a advantage or a disadvantage, but it's the same for everyone," he shrugged.
And it goes without saying that Sagan was equally nonplussed by his status as favourite. "If everyone rides against me, then they risk losing themselves," he said.
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