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Pressure on Sagan mounting as De Ronde looms

You almost have to feel sorry for Peter Sagan. Second place for just about anyone else in Friday’s E3-Harelbeke would be at least cause for optimism going into the northern classics.

But if you’re the Tinkoff superstar, another second place is like pouring salt on a wound. The reigning world champion won’t admit it, but he’s got to be fed up with finishing one step below the winner’s podium.

On Friday, Sagan did just about everything right, but he couldn’t shake Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky).

“In the finish, I was without energy and he was stronger than me. I think I did a lot of work in the finale, and was without legs,” Sagan said Friday. “Cycling is simple sometimes. I’ve got a fast finish, but after a race like this, everything is different. In the last two kilometers, the group was closing behind and I pulled a lot on the front, and in the finale I ran out of legs.”

Friday marked his sixth second place in 18 days of racing so far in 2016, which includes a second overall by just one second at Tirreno-Adriatico. No one wants to talk of a world champion’s curse, yet he remains winless since his spectacular victory last September in Richmond, Virginia.

Two takeaways from Friday: First, Sagan is clearly racing with more acumen. He proved that last year in Richmond, when he waited for precisely the right moment to drop the hammer. On Friday, he was calm in the midst of what was quite a dynamic, complicated race, wisely accelerating the front group when Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo) was chasing back from his mechanical, and then surging away on the decisive Oude Kwaremont. Those tactical chops are in sharp contrast to the past few years when he would blindly churn his pedals, and turn around to see who was still on his wheel.

Second, it’s hard to exactly read where his form is right now. He was strong enough to be at the front of the pack throughout the narrow, treacherous Harelbeke course, and even more so to power away with Kwiatkowski. But late in the race, Sagan seemed to be half-wheeling, and clearly didn’t have the spark to challenge Kwiatkowski for the victory. In the final kilometer, Sagan seemed to admit he didn’t have the legs to win, and was looking back to make sure he was going to get at least second.

So does he have the legs to take on Cancellara and Boonen in Flanders? Sagan got over the Poggio to ride into the final in the 291km Milano-Sanremo, a race that’s much easier than the northern classics, only to have Fernando Galviria’s crash disrupt his finale. On Friday, Sagan hinted that he might not yet be in top shape. The question is, will he be by next Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders)?

Going into Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem — a race he won in 2013 — Tinkoff seemed to be downplaying his chances. Though the race tackles many of the same bergs, including the emblematic Kemmelberg, Gent-Wevelgem often favors teams will many cards to play. It’s often a battle between late-race attacks (like the one made by last year’s winner Luca Paolini), and small bunch sprints.

“Gent-Wevelgem might prove more difficult for me than E3 Harelbeke,” Sagan said in a team release Saturday “The finish is more suitable for solo attacks and it’s not easy to watch everyone. Any team with more riders at the front after crossing the hills could have a big advantage, but it may not be decisive — anyone can surprise in these classics.”

That suggests that Sagan is already looking ahead to next weekend’s Flanders. Another victory at Gent-Wevelgem won’t add much luster to his palmares, except for serving to get the second-place monkey off his back. What Sagan needs more than anything is to win a monument.

He proved Friday he’s close. You get the feeling that Sagan would like to finish anywhere, except second.