He’s been runner-up this season and a couple of readers have been asking if Sagan is in trouble. Surely not, he’s only done one race this season and Qatar wasn’t the big goal: fans of Peter Sagan need not worry.
Forecasts can be foolish but let’s predict Peter Sagan is going to win Stage 2 of the Tour of Oman on Wednesday. The finish suits him perfectly with the difficult climb of Al Jissah just before the fast descent to the finish outside the Al Bustan hotel. He’s won here before.
The Gulf races are for training. It’s all about the spring classics campaign but he won’t have it easy. Alexander Kristoff is looks set to become his nemesis. The two were sprinting in Qatar and there paths are going to cross several times between now and Paris-Roubaix.
Yes he’s been beaten again and again but Peter Sagan’s brief record this season is impressive. During the Tour of Qatar, he was in the top-5 of time except the time trial. Sagan’s success rate in pure bunch sprints isn’t high but he is consistent. Maybe he can’t get the better of Mark Cavendish and Marel Kittel in a grand tour drag race finish but throw in a few hills before or a climb to the line and he’ll be the better pick.
Last year saw Sagan thrown off course. He was shopping for a contract with Oleg Tinkov and once an agreement was reached could see him back off. The Slovak showed up for the Vuelta overweight. Even when trying his hardest he didn’t have a strong enough team and he was isolated in the big classics; it’s said this was compounded by his contractual position, that the Italian contingent of the Cannondale team knew that if they toiled for Sagan it would possibly increase his contractual value but they would not get much since Sagan wasn’t able to take them with him. Office politics aside it’s clear Cannondale was a weak team, certainly unable to match outfits like OPQS or BMC Racing and arguably weaker than most during the spring classics.
Is Tinkoff-Saxo stronger? Yes but they’re far from the strongest team. Scan the roster and there’s the veteran tandem of Daniele Bennati and Matteo Tossato, combined age of 74; the later 7th in the 2012 Paris-Roubaix. As well there’s Maciej Bodnar, Michael Mørkøv, Matti Breschel and Pavel Brutt. All capable riders and this is a team lining up behind a single leader.
The Unique Selling Point has been Sagan’s ability to sprint after a hilly stage. It reached the point where you’d look at the race route and think “Sagan” for those days when the profile was enough to give thoroughbred sprinters heavy legs. But this strength is a compromise, he can’t match the climbers in a hilly race nor can he beat the sprinters in a flat finish. Fabian Cancellara has cracked him on the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combo. As much as the physiological talent, the concern for Sagan is his mental approach, the ability to calculate the odds in the closing moment of a race. He was going on the attack in the Tour de Suisse when he could have won the sprint; he was marked out of contention on the Oyonnax stage of the Tour de France. Sessions spent playing poker and chess could be as beneficial as time in the wind tunnel or stretching routines.
April or bust
Peter Sagan can win all year but the big goal is the spring classics. Come July he’ll have to share the team with Alberto Contador and Riis has made it clear that Sagan’s sprint goals and green jersey ambitions are subordinate to supporting Contador; it’s likely Sagan plays “bodyguard” on the pavé stage. Sagan might aim for a green jersey and has a good chance of repeating but remember the points will be re-jigged to suit pure sprinters. Scoring systems aside you sense Tinkov’s not bothered, after all for now even the Tour de France can’t get a sponsor for the green jersey, a clue to the relative importance. It’s a measure of the weight of expectations that Sagan’s career has been a frustration for some, despite having just turned 25 and winning the E3 Harelbeke.
Kristoff meanwhile is in the perfect position, even his body language suggests confidence. If Qatar was all about practising drills in the desert then Katusha thrived in the crosswinds, placing their leader in the front group every time it mattered and leaving Kristoff to finish off the job with his sprint. The Milan-Sanremo winner could easily repeat the feat on the Via Roma but he could and should thrive in the Flemish classics too.
Like Sagan, Kristoff will be the team leader for the classics on a roster filled with support riders. Luca Paolini stands out, perhap thanks to his beard ahead of results. Russian riders like Alexey Tsatevich and Viacheslav Kuznetsov form the backbone of a tough team in the service of their leader.
Is he a sprinter? The results say yes but if he wins the Tour of Flanders we’ll say something different. Kristoff certainly has the power to beat everyone in a sprint but the harder the race, the better. L’Equipe reported last week that he lives all year in Norway – not for him a Monaco studio apartment – which goes a long way to explaining his ability to thrive when the weather turns foul. But the same newspaper also interviewed his peers who commented on his ability to pick the right wheels and measure his efforts in Qatar, he would make the front group but efficiently so. He’s said he wasn’t sprinting with big watts, he was fresher than the others at the finish. We’ve seen this in the Tour de France too, he was beaten by Marcel Kittel in the early stages but got the edge after the Alps by riding more efficiently.
Unlike Sagan there’s a good chance Kristoff gets a cohort of helpers for the Tour de France with Joaquim Rodriguez sharing responsibilities. In short Kristoff can call the shots all year.
Tinkoff-Saxo vs Katusha
There’s the wider context of team rivalry. Both have Russian sponsors, one run by a publicity-mad entrepreneur the other by a powerful, discreet oligarch. They’re linked too since Katusha was born when Igor Makarov bought out Tinkov from his first team. This might bring extra stress for Tinkov but normally team managers will be more concerned with the likes of Etixx and Sky. Still look out for these little rivalries, it’s more common to see teams from the same country chasing each other down rather than form patriotic alliances.
Luckily this isn’t tennis. There’s no binary battle between Sagan and Kristoff, cycle sport resembles a 20-sided chessboard with eight pieces per team. To narrow it down there are several others who can match these two. First is John Degenkolb who is set to be Giant-Alpecin’s classics leader, the roles in the team clearly split with Kittel for the grand tour boulevards, “Dege” for the classics. Dege’s contract is up and The Cycling Podcast has whispered about Etixx-Quickstep. He won in Sagan style in Dubai.
No mention of the classics can exclude Tom Boonen, although increasingly no mention of Boonen can exclude his age and talk of waning powers but he was in the sprints in Qatar and all looks on track. Michael Matthews is another one. As fourth place last year in Sanremo showed, Juan-José Lobato is another. Nacer Bouhanni is a fascinating story, a sprinter but lives in the Vosges and works a lot on his climbing. The tail of the list gets long when we consider the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde, Greg Van Avermaet and Bryan Coquard can all appear as challengers in the right race.
Peter Sagan’s not won a race since June last year but he’s got a good chance this week in Oman. But the spring classics are the goal. Yes he was beaten several times last summer but with a contract in his back pocket he seemed to back off.
Sagan can and should win a monument, he’s been in the winning position before and as long as he keeps his head things can work out. But don’t underestimate the difficulty of success here, to win San Remo or the Tour of Flanders requires luck. With experience and a stronger team everything points to success in the classics but he’s got Alexander Kristoff to worry about.