If a World Championships takes place in the desert and nobody is around to see it, has the World Championships really taken place? There are certainly few vestiges of the event evident in downtown Doha, and the paucity of local interest allied to the distinct absence of spectators has led many to note that this week in Qatar scarcely has the feel of a World Championships at all.
Reigning champion Peter Sagan, however, is not concerned by the prospect of racing before an empty theatre in the main event on Sunday. But then, as befits a rider whose every pedal stroke seems to lend itself to a gif or YouTube video, Sagan is more aware than most that these days, the audience is often to be found elsewhere.
"We are in the 21st century, everybody has television," Sagan shrugged. "They can watch on television."
The Velon brains trust would doubtless have appreciated the sentiment. Romantics such as Marc Madiot – who, it must be said, is a very vocal admirer of Sagan's riding – certainly would not. So it goes.
Sagan's sense of showmanship extended to telling reporters after his victory at the European Championships last month that he might consider skipping the Worlds altogether due to fatigue, even though all and sundry knew that the Slovak was never going to forgo the chance to defend his title.
He did, however, make a point of arriving in Qatar later than almost any other contender for the rainbow jersey, only landing in Doha on Thursday, more than a week after the first riders had reached the Gulf.
"I didn't know where I could train. And I'm never home, I also wanted to be home," Sagan said by way of explanation. "I did a lot of races this year and a lot of travel, so I decided to come at the last moment and just see. And I can also prepare in Monaco and train."
The decision to forgo a longer proper acclimatisation process was a curious one for a man who admitted to suffering when it comes to racing in soaring temperatures – "I have to say I'm not very good performing in these kind of conditions," he said – but Sagan was gnomic as ever when asked to assess how the warm weather might affect Sunday's elite men's road race.
"I don't know, maybe we can expect some rain," he said flippantly. "It's the same for everybody. If there's wind, we have to race with wind. If it's hot, we have to race with heat. There are a lot of polemics, but we can speak about that in two days."
On the prospect of winning a second successive world title, a feat last achieved by Paolo Bettini in 2006 and 2007, Sagan was equally unmoved. "A lot of riders have won it twice, some three. Another World Championships is not historical but that's why I'm here, to race and do my best. You have to stay in good shape but it's also a little bit a lottery on this kind of parcours."
A question as to who might be the favourite to hold the winning ticket in that particular lottery was met by a perfunctory response: "Everybody."
Another reporter tried a different tack when asking Sagan if, like Tom Boonen (Belgium), he would like the race to be keenly-contested from the outset and the peloton to break up on the initial 150-kilometre run through the desert. "And don't say 'We will see on Sunday,'" the reported pleaded.
"But that's what I wanted to answer," Sagan smiled. "I cannot predict it, the future. For my shape it's better if they make the race shorter… no, I'm just joking. We will see. But whoever wins will tell you after the race was perfect for him. We'll have to see Sunday."
Sagan had earlier displayed an inclination towards the mystical when he attributed his remarkable season in the rainbow jersey – a campaign that has yielded, among other successes, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, three Tour de France stages and a European title – to destiny. Something of an existential clash, incidentally, with Tinkoff teammate Alberto Contador's "Querer es Poder" ("Where there's a will there's a way") mantra.
"It depends also on how is the stars in the space. One year is good and one year is bad, and this year, it was good. Because of the luck maybe," Sagan said.
Sagan gave short shrift, too, to the notion that, as reigning world champion, he was under any particular pressure to win in Doha on Sunday. "No. What do I have to lose?"
"A rainbow jersey," somebody piped up.
"Yeah, but I already have one," Sagan said. "I don't have anything to lose. What pressure?"
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