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Sagan tailors late season for run at the world title

MILAN (VN) — Peter Sagan has tuned his 2013 season to be ready for the world championship road race next Sunday in Florence, Italy. He skipped the post-Tour de France criteriums and honed his form; all that is left is for the Slovak champion to take the rainbow jersey.

“It’s difficult, it’s a one-day race. It’s up to the day, how the teams race and if they go all out or if they race defensively,” Sagan told VeloNews. “However, I’m thinking about winning the jersey.”

The 23-year-old Cannondale rider is staying at the team’s base in northeastern Italy, where he lived for some time when he first joined the team, then Liquigas, in 2010. At that time, it was quiet. Sagan trained on the roads and no one really bothered him. Now, cycling’s attention is placed squarely on him.

Sagan rocketed through his first two professional seasons. In his third year, in 2012, he won 16 times — two more than sprinter Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). As part of his haul, he took the green jersey and three stages at the Tour de France. This year, he focused on three major objectives: the classics, the Tour, and the worlds.

“He’s going better this year. His head’s in it [the world championships]. When you’re mentally ready, it’s easier,” Cannondale trainer Paolo Slongo said. “Last year or the previous years, he was already unplugged, and we didn’t want to push him. He raced, but he was more relaxed. He’s more concentrated this time around.”

He stormed through the classics with second places in monuments Milano-Sanremo and Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and wins at Gent-Wevelgem and Brabantse Pijl. He took another green jersey at the Tour and backed off ahead a build up in North American for the worlds. That trim down after the Tour meant Sagan left the criterium appearance fees on the table.

“That shows a bit of maturity on his part, because at 23 years old it’s tempting to go and earn a lot of money for one night out,” said Slongo.

Sagan returned after his green-jersey arrival to Paris stronger than in the past. Instead of zero wins in the post-Tour period like last year, he rattled off eight. His latest was one of his greatest. He responded to a Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) attack and went solo with just over five kilometers remaining to win the Gran Prix Cycliste de Montréal on Sept. 9.

Despite Sagan’s post-Tour record, Italian coach and two-time former world champion Paolo Bettini believes Slovakia’s best hope for its first-ever elite road race title can be beaten.

“Two-hundred kilometers and five hours is one thing; 250 kilometers and seven hours is another,” Bettini told VeloNews. “Over 250 kilometers he’s always been beatable.”

The worlds race rolls out of Lucca and travels through Tuscany for 106.6 kilometers before starting the Florence circuits. The riders must repeat the 16.57km circuit, which features two short, steep climbs, 10 times. In total, they will race 272.26 kilometers Sunday.

“He’s improved on the climbs for this season. He’s going better than the last years. It’s harder to drop him,” said Slongo. “He’s a fast sprinter, so it would be better for him if it’s relaxed earlier on so that he has more energy for the final. If they start putting him in difficulty right away on the start of the circuits, it’ll suit Vincenzo Nibali [Italy] or Joaquím Rodríguez [Spain].”

Sagan is fast. He beat Cavendish and other pure sprinters this year. However, what makes him so interesting is that he is unpredictable. His Gent-Wevelgem win earlier this year, which came after he attacked solo with two kilometers remaining, is a sharp reminder to expect the unexpected.

“I’ll see how the others make the race,” Sagan said. “If I’m going well, like in Montreal, I don’t even need to wait until the final. I can make my move.”

That much is predictable.