Since he was unleashed upon the peloton in 2010, just 20 years of age but seemingly already fully-formed, Peter Sagan has worn the look of a man who can’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. Over the past four years, the Cannondale rider has routinely gone about the business of winning and appeared largely nonplussed by the attention that surrounds him.
It was a similar story in Kortrijk on Friday evening, as the Tour of Flanders press pack descended upon the Kennedy Hotel to hear Sagan’s final thoughts ahead of the big day. Faced with a volley of flashbulbs and microphones, the Slovak wearily downplayed the expectations surrounding him ahead of Sunday’s race.
"It’s too many people making pressure here because it’s a big race, but I try to take the race like fun," Sagan said. "In these important races, that’s a bit difficult, but it depends. It’s a race like another one, no?"
After last week adding E3 Harelbeke to his Gent-Wevelgem victory of twelve months ago, there is a growing sense that Sagan is ready to graduate to winning a Monument. He was already at the receiving end of some harsh criticism when he failed to open that particular account at Milan-San Remo, but he declared himself unconcerned by the prospect of a repeat dose if he were to fall short at the Tour of Flanders.
"It’s not my problem. I want to do well, but after that, I don’t know my future," Sagan said. "Maybe I can try for ten years to win this race and never win it. I don’t know my destiny."
Fabian Cancellara was Sagan’s victor at the Tour of Flanders last year, but the two did not face off directly in the finale of E3 Harelbeke as the Swiss rider was caught behind a crash before the Paterberg. Sagan answered testily when asked if he felt Cancellara was strong as he was last year.
"What do you think? He is always strong, but this analysing is not very good because his condition and performance at Harelbeke is more important than his result there," he said, adding: "In Milan-San Remo last year I was second and now I’m not strong because I was 10th this year?"
The other half of the cobbled classics’ Old Firm, Tom Boonen, maintains that Sagan is fortunate that he can rely on his sprint finish at the Tour of Flanders rather than have to drop his rivals in the finale. When told that Boonen considers him to be "a lucky boy," Sagan managed to suppress a smile. "Yeah? Ah, good," he deadpanned, later adding that it was not certain he would play the waiting game on the road to Oudenaarde. "Will I attack? It depends."
Of the three principal contenders for Tour of Flanders victory, Sagan is the man who enjoyed the best weekend at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, but he said that it was hard to tell if his condition was any better than it had been at this point last year. "I don’t know if I’m stronger or not. We will see. For now, I feel good and that’s important, but I don’t want to make any predictions."
Regardless of his precise physical condition, Sagan has certainly added significantly to another important part of a Tour of Flanders contender’s armoury. Now facing into his fourth tilt at De Ronde, he is increasingly familiar with the hellingen and cobbles that make up the parcours, though he pointed out that he will never possess the same knowledge as the local contingent.
"When you come here the first time, it’s almost impossible to win but now I’m here for the fourth time. I was 5th one year, then 2nd and I think I can do well this year," he said. "I don’t have the same experience as Boonen because he grew up here. That [experience] is important, but how you feel is also important, no?"
Sagan reconnoitered the parcours of the Tour of Flanders on Friday morning and described the revised finale as being harder than that of twelve months ago. In theory at least, shifting the Koppenberg closer to the finish ought to make for a more open race.
"We will see how the race is on Sunday but I think it’s harder. There’s not as much time to recover between the climbs. For sure, the last 50 kilometres are hard but we’ll see what the other riders do. If we go fast, then it will be hard," he said.
An unexpected road closure threatened to prevent Sagan from going over the Oude Kwaremont during his reconnaissance, but the youngster showed invention – and, perhaps, a little bit of cheek – to climb it from the other side before dropping down to salute the policeman who had blocked his way. For Sagan, it seems, there are no obstacles.
"We said we wanted to see because we were racing here on Sunday, but he stopped me," he said with a smile. "So after I went up [the other side] and then came back to say ‘hello, it’s open, what’s the problem?’"