HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — The pressure is on Peter Sagan (Cannondale) to deliver a big victory in the northern classics.
His impressive performance Friday in a hard-fought E3 Harelbeke only heightened expectations that Sagan will win the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), but he deflected questions when asked if he’s feeling heat to deliver a victory in the season’s second monument on April 6.
“It’s important, yes, but I also have a future,” Sagan said. “Yes, I want to do well. It’s still good when I win, or when I finish second. The most important for me is to do the maximum in the race, then I am happy.”
Last year, Sagan dominated the spring classics, winning or finishing second in every major race, but fell short of winning a monument, one of cycling’s five most important one-day races. Expectations are so high now for the 24-year-old that his losses are bigger news than his victories. He woke up Monday after riding to 10th in a wet and cold Milano-Sanremo to see a full-page story in Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport questioning his ability to deliver a “big one.”
“I don’t read newspapers,” Sagan said Friday when asked about growing media pressure. “The journalists do his job, I do mine.”
Friday’s Harelbeke saw Sagan clearly back on winning form. Despite a bike change midway through the race, he was always at the pointy end of the action, and was at the front when a crash with about 40 kilometers to go split the peloton.
Pre-race favorites such as Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) were caught out of position. When Cancellara and a chasing Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) were within 16 seconds of regaining contact with the front group with 25km to go, Sagan punched the accelerator to widen the gap to more than one minute, assuring that the leading four would challenge for the victory.
“It’s nice to win today, but the most important thing was to make a test of the form,” Sagan said. “I could see that I am strong for these races.”
Cannondale officials are downplaying the mounting pressure on Sagan, who has emerged over the past two seasons as one of the top stars of the peloton.
“These coming days are very important for Peter and for Cannondale. He is on top form, and the team is very strong,” Cannondale general manager Roberto Amadio told VeloNews. “We hope to make a big victory in these big races.”
With a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico and second at Strade Bianche earlier in March, Sagan is peaking just in time for the classics.
Amadio shrugged off the soggy Sanremo finale, expressing confidence that Sagan is in winning form coming into the season’s most important week.
“It’s hard to make too many conclusions from what happened Sunday. It was an incredible race, with cold, rain,” Amadio said. “What’s important is that Peter is in good condition now.”
Speaking to VeloNews before the start in Harelbeke, Sagan teammate Ted King said the team was entering the Belgian classics with every intention of winning.
“We have very high hopes with a guy like that on the team. He’s a tremendous guy to work for,” King said. “He’s fascinating, because he has a very light attitude. He has this youthful energy, he’s 24, but he has a precision focus on the day. Over the course of the past three years, he’s made enormous progression, so to take a monument would be bigger than big.”
Sagan said he’s not obsessing about winning Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, but Amadio said there is no problem motivating the two-time Tour de France green jersey.
“Every time he puts a number on his back, he has the expectations to win, but it is not possible to win every race,” Amadio said. “It’s a very important week for him. I think it’s possible for a big victory this week.”
Friday proved he’s on the right track, and Sagan said he has nothing to prove to anyone.
“I don’t know what will happen Sunday. I could crash after 20km and the race is over,” Sagan said. “There is nothing certain in this life.”
Sagan’s contract future to be decided after classics
When asked about speculation over the future of his Italian-registered, American-backed team, Amadio laughed, and said, “speculation is what is going on.”
Amadio said rumors of a merger with Tinkoff-Saxo are false and insisted Cannondale would continue as a squad next year.
“We will have our own team next year,” he said. “The big question is whether Sagan stays or not. It is possible.”
Sagan has been linked to just about every major team, including a new team being formed by Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.
Amadio said he’s been talking with Sagan and his agent, Giovanni Lombardi, and said a decision could come as soon as the conclusion of the spring classics at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 27.
“The team is happy with Peter, and Peter is very happy with the team, but money is also very important,” Amadio said. “We are in discussions.”
A big victory at Flanders or Roubaix, which Sagan will race for the first time since 2011, could have a multi-million-euro impact on those discussions.