Welcome to the reign of Peter the Great.
Sunday’s breakthrough victory at Ghent-Wevelgem delineates a before and after in the ever-upward trajectory of the 23-year-old from Zilina, Slovakia.
Cannondale’s natural-born-winner has already notched more victories in his young, but prolific career than entire teams manage over the span of years, yet Sunday’s cold-weather knockout blow with less than 4 kilometers to go marked Peter Sagan’s entree into another stratosphere.
His victory was his first major one-day trophy and gets the monkey off his back in what was a minor, but irritating glitch on his otherwise sparkling resume.
Last year, Sagan tackled the classics for the first time with serious intentions and knocked on the door of a major win, finishing second at Ghent, third at Amstel Gold Race, fourth at Milano-Sanremo, and fifth at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).
This year, the big win that seemed all but inevitable was proving slippery. If Sagan was showing signs of frustration with a string of second places at Strade Bianche, Milan-Sanremo, and E3 Harelbeke, he didn’t show it.
On Sunday, he rode a tactically perfect race. With the main pack finally getting organized in the closing 30 minutes of racing, Sagan played the winning breakaway like it was his private playground.
Looking around and seeing danger in fast kickers like Greg Van Avermaert (BMC Racing) and Borut Bozic (Astana), Sagan wasn’t going to take any chances. He countered a move by Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), punched the accelerator and was simply gone.
Sagan’s surge with 3.5km left was impressive by any measure. It would be interesting to get a glimpse of his power meter to see what watts he was pushing when he powered away. It was pure strength and the mark of a champion’s confidence to take the bull by the horns.
That brutal acceleration signaled Sagan’s arrival and was just the first of what will surely become trademark Sagan moments in the spring classics.
Cannondale has been wise in managing its prodigy. The team kept him out of the Tour de France until last year because it didn’t want to pile too much pressure on him too soon. That move paid off in spades when Sagan won three stages and the green jersey in his Tour debut in 2012.
The team is following a similar pattern in the classics. Last year was Sagan’s first real charge through the classics and it’s kept him on a slow-burning fuse. Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège will be challenges for the future as Sagan continues to mature as a rider.
Sagan is taking everything in stride. He reveals more maturity than riders a decade older and he’s clearly comfortable with the attention that comes with success. His singular focus is winning races and his ambition knows no limits.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, the only rider capable of stopping the Sagan express this spring seems to be Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard).
His winning acceleration Friday in E3 was vintage Cancellara and was a clear statement that the 32-year-old from Bern is determined to reclaim his title of king of the cobbles.
With Sagan skipping Paris-Roubaix and Cancellara not racing Amstel Gold Race (neither will race Liège-Bastogne-Liège), Sunday’s Ronde will be the only remaining showdown between the two this spring.
Cancellara is a proud, old-school warrior used to having his way in the peloton. After getting a taste of Sagan’s wile and ambition in last year’s Tour de France when Sagan rode off his wheel to win stage 1, Cancellara seems intent on delivering a message.
Spartacus has already made it no secret that Sagan’s finish-line antics are not appreciated by all, grumbling that his perceived show-boating is rubbing some the wrong way.
While Sagan’s youthful exuberance might get the best of him, it seems more like it’s a young kid having the time of his life than any sort of snub. Who wouldn’t want to pop a wheelie after killing it in Belgium?
For Sagan, who seems immune to such chatter, the focus now turns toward a monument. He’s not racing Roubaix or Liège, and he’s come tantalizingly close at Milano-Sanremo. Amstel’s not considered a monument, so it all comes down to Sunday.
With defending champion Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) hobbled by injury and world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) looking to peak for the Ardennes, Flanders could see an epic shootout between Sagan and Cancellara.
In the vagaries of one-day racing, everything can change in an instant. A puncture, a crash, a momentary lapse of concentration can deflate hope in a blink of an eye. That’s a lesson that Cancellara and Boonen have both learned throughout their respective careers. Sagan remains in that youthful sweet spot, when everything still lies in the future, unhampered by injury or major disappointment.
Sunday’s Ronde will be a monumental test of will, determination and pure strength. There will surely be other actors on the stage, but the marquee battle will be Sagan vs. Cancellara.