Peter Sagan vs. Alexander Kristoff

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.

Sagan Kristoff Qatar

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.

Sagan Qatar
Sagan gets a tune-up in Qatar

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.

The Cannibal passes on some recipe tips

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.

Katusha team

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.

“So Alexander, Sanremo or the Ronde… or both?”

All Year
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.

The Rivals
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.

Boonen Merckx

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.

37 thoughts on “Peter Sagan vs. Alexander Kristoff”

        • It’s awful isn’t it!

          I appreciate that it’s likely all part of the “getting yourself noticed in the peloton” game for the team/sponsors, but I definitely prefer the camouflage kit that they were wearing pre-season even if that might have the opposite effect!

          Which one will they be wearing for the rest of the season?

          • Whoops, to answer my own (embarrassing) question, that is Sagan’s national champs jersey and the rest of Tinkoff Saxo are back in yellow and blue. That shows just how much racing I’ve seen so far this season!

            That’s a real shame, because I liked the camo training kit!

  1. Great article! I’ve been saying for a long time that the problem for Sagan is that he’s a jack of all trades, master of none. A seriously good one, and it works for him in GTs on stages were the guys he might have to compete with are not there or riding for a leader, it also works for him in the semi-classics and some of the classics, but when the monuments roll round he always seems to find himself up against someone who is better at the required specialism than he is.

    He’s got youth on his side at the moment, but I think he needs to focus more specifically on the hilly courses and drop some of the sprinting speed myself.

    Kristoff on the other hand seems to be able to out-climb all the sprinters and still compete with them, particularly in a reduced bunch. RvV looks very possible…

    • You can see this in not only where Sagan loses to the Cav/Kittel/Greipel/Kristoff type sprinters, but even in recent Tour de France stages where puncheurs like Gerrans and Trentin have pipped him for victories. I’ve thought for a while that Sagan should try and use his power more like Cancellera or Boonen in just trying to distance everyone else and ride solo to the win, but as INRNG points out, this is a lot easier with a strong team, something Cannondale was not.

      Ironically something that might make this easier is him winning less races. Consider stage 11 of last year’s TDF. A bunch of cat 3 and 4 climbs at the end which ruled out the pure sprinters, almost a archetype of what might be dubbed a “Sagan stage”. A select group makes it over the climb containing all the usual suspects: Sagan, Gerrans, Degenkolb, Trentin and Van Avermaet among others Yet at 2.7k to go Tony Gallopin leaps clear confident that the rest of the group would all look at each other rather than tow Sagan to the line, giving the Frenchman the stage. Because Sagan has such a reputation for winning from such positions, he’s almost certain to lose as no one will help him. Dropping that reputation might help.

  2. Great piece. I especially enjoyed “cycle sport resembles a 20-sided chessboard with eight pieces per team”, a very apt description indeed. It certainly seems like many of the main contenders are already in good shape – roll on the Spring!

  3. It sure is weird… Sagan seemed like a game-changer when he first appeared, seemed set to dominate on a similar level to Cav did in bunch sprints for years, but on a much more varied set of terrain.

    But then… the promise hangs tantalizingly in the balance… so close yet so far, so much… meanwhile, OTHER fantastic riders appear!

    Is it just me or is the peloton just stacked with talent compared to a few years ago? Seems like a huge change in depth lately……. maybe a good topic for a future post, though I dont know how much else could be said!

    • I don’t think you can compare those two. Not everybody needs or wants the same thing. Different personalities bring different careers/lifes. Maybe Sagan is happy how and where he is, because other things than success and proving people wrong are important to him too?

      • I think a much bigger issue is that after that initial explosion of results, the whole peloton sees him as a serious threat. When it’s coming to the end of a stage that suits him, everyone is marking him, everyone wants to follow his wheel and noone wants to give him an inch of assistance.

        He talked about the frustration of it in lots of interviews in the classics last year. It might sounds like sour grapes, but watching the races he’s definitely got a point and it’s got to make it a hell of a lot harder to cross the line first when there’s 10 other guys with a leg up.

    • Many probably know it but OPQS boss Patrick Lefevere had an amateur Peter Sagan in for tests, partly because the road team was using Specialized bikes and so was the Slovak off road. Lefevere rejected him, much to his ongoing frustration today.

  4. Sagan in the Classics lacks the heart, or rather, the guts of a champion. The more recent riders with championship heart–a combo of confidence, race saavy timing and full-on commitment to lead or breakaway, backed up by the power to do so–are Cancellara, Boonen and to a lesser extent, GVA. Museeuw, of course, is the template. But Sagan, like a little boy, doesn’t want to take the lead, always turning around trying to coerce the man behind to take a turn. That’s the image I have in my mind. Talented, yes. Not a champion though.

    • I think that’s pretty harsh and unreasonable criticism of someone who is 25 years old. He did win the 2013 Gent Wevelgem, Brabantse Pijl and Grand Prix Montreal solo.

      By comparison, Cancellara didn’t win his first Monument until he was….wait for it, 25…..then his second at 27.

      Boonens’ first Monument; 25. Museeuw, well he had to mature to 28 before nabbing the 1993 Flanders.

      • Yes.

        Furthermore, and arguably weaker than most during the spring classics.

        There was nothing to argue. If he had teammates at the front they only got there when the pace slacked… And then teammates were shelled when the pace cranked up again.

        There’s only so much one rider can do with 5+ Omega Pharma Whatever riders ruling the front.

        • Another big change for Peter in the 2013/14 off-season was moving to Monaco with his girlfriend. I wasn’t too surprised when he came up short to Cancellara at Flanders, but he did a good Roubaix considering how isolated he was with all those OPQS guys at the front of the race.

          He will have better support this year, that’s a gimme.
          Perhaps what he needs is a good firm kick up the bum. Less media imagery and marketing (posting pics of donuts in mid January to instagram e.g.) and some better discipline in both training, nutrition and commitment.

          Following Peter on social media, it’s pretty clear he had a lot of off-the-bike distractions. Hopefully this year he prioritized his training and gets the tactics right. Still time to turn himself into a multiple monuments winner!

          Ironically his best chance was probably that Snow-effected San Remo in ’13 when Ciolek randomly sneaked past to pip Sagan at the line. I wouldn’t fancy his chances in a pure-sprint these days. In case he doesn’t get dropped on Paterberg – just how will he beat and in-form Fabian who can also sprint when he needs to?

          Part of the dilemma is knowing he is the fastest finisher. Do you stick or twist? I would argue that he has more likelihood of doing something solo from a few KM out, than actually out-sprinting anyone after 250km. The tactical nous of Riis will hopefully help some of the indecisive moves he’s been making in the closing stages of the big races. There’s not long to find out either way 🙂

          • He’s jumped away to win Gent-Wevelgem in 2013, everyone was expecting him to go for the sprint win but he soloed away. For me the risk is he can do both, it’s still uncertain whether he “does a Cancellara” and goes away for the win or sits tight, confident in his sprint.

            The social media aspect is interesting as a tangent. Follow Rigoberto Uran and it seems he’s spending all the time posing with Colombian celebrities and trying to sell his clothing line… but he delivered last year on the road. A few photos can give the illusion of something when we don’t really see what happens the rest of the time.

        • Yeah, its incredibly hard considering literally half their team can win in the classics. Boonen, Terpstra, Stybar, Vandenbergh, and now Van Keirsbulck could all be leaders on any other squad. You got to think eventually a few of them will get sick of being co-captains with four others and jump ship to other outfits, but until then its impossible for anyone, especially a weak team like Cannondale, to contain them. Throw in Cancellara, Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet, etc., and you can begin to see why he hasn’t won a Monument yet.

      • De Vlaeminck at 23, hinault at 22, Merckx at 20.. jempy monsere lombardia in his first season, and the worlds in his second..
        sagan obviously very talented but over hyped? EBH too ?

  5. Sagan has also faced the tactical challenge of being the man everyone is watching and marking at a young age. Cancellara has had difficulties in similar settings when he has years of additional experience (and power). It will be interesting to me to see whether Riis is able to help him tactically.

    • Perhaps he could do worse than take some lessons from Simon Gerrans?
      Similar rider although probably not as strong as Sagan at the same age and yet he’s got two Monuments now, both taken with racecraft as much as pure ability. However, I take your point that Sagan is strongly marked – and Gerrans at the same age would not have been.

  6. Agree with the last few posts.

    Some of the “blame” on Sagan’s lacking should be placed with his last few DS’s

    He is talented and developing and still needs guidance.

  7. Sagan = Bossan-Hagen ?

    Both had success at an early age. Both started of with many predicting great things. Both are excellent all rounder’s. Neither have a dominating strength in any single discipline. These are two exciting riders, who are possibly in danger of never fulfilling their true potential !

    Another excellent thought provoking article.

    • i don’t know i think both riders where in team that did not suit them,sky was all about winning the tour and cannondale /Liquigas was just bad.

    • yes, i was thinking this topic wouldn’t be complete without mention of EBH – very similar riders and careers thus far. sagan has been more successful but both have for a variety of reasons not (yet) delivered on the incredible potential they showed earlier.

      this year, both have changed teams in the hope that will make the difference, will be interesting to see how they each fare

  8. Maybe its just me, but I’m tired of hearing what Sagan is going to do. He’s a great bike rider and all but the endless speculation is boring. Moreover, wasting half of last year with contract nonsense was poor judgement. Imagine he crashes tomorrow and has career-ending inuries….what a wasted opportunity 2014 will look like. Sorry, just think he needs to get his head together. This is why his on the road judgement is off, hes’ not hungry enough. Money flowing in and everyone blowing smoke up his arse telling him how many monuments he’ll win…..not a recipe for success.

    (BTW, typo in the paragraph about Sagan negotiating with Tinkoff …once an agreement was reached (insert we or you) could see…..)

  9. I just today caught Stephen Roches little lovenote to Sagan: “..I expect him to start winning regularly and once again fulfil the immense, almost incomparable potential he showed as a 20-year-old.”. Cute!

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