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Comment: Peter Sagan is back, we think

22 Mar 2021

Milan-San Remo proved Peter Sagan still has what it takes and now we are backing him for Tour of Flanders glory

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Offside

Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Sagan is back. I mean, did he ever really go away? We are not sure but if he did, he has returned and is ready to conquer again.

It feel like a massive overstatement to declare a fourth place at Milan-San Remo as a big result for Sagan. In fact, for a rider with his prestige and palmares, that result could previously have passed as an insult. Sagan of old would have only impressed with victory – or at least a threeway photo finish.

But before Saturday, some – including myself – were suspecting that Peter the Great was all but dead and buried. He seemed a rider passed the peak of his powers who had fallen foul to a new generation of racers who are just harder, better, faster, stronger.

And it must have been beginning to feel that way for Sagan, too.

Last year's was a strange season for a lot of reasons not least for it being the worst season of Sagan’s professional career. Cycling’s greatest showman was almost non-existent.

His iron grip on the Tour de France’s green jersey was bust open by Sam Bennett and Deceuninck-QuickStep as Sagan left the Grande Boucle with just two third-place finishes to his name.

He then skipped a truncated Cobbled Classics campaign in favour of the delayed Giro d’Italia. His only victory of the year came there on Stage 10 to Tortoreto, an almighty solo attack that showed glimmers of the Slovakian of old. But you cannot help but think just the one stage win was a poor return from Sagan's Giro debut.

Finishing 2020 with just one victory, Sagan would have been desperate to start 2021 with a big win. He didn’t, and instead started the year in potentially the worst possible way: contracting Covid-19 on a pre-season training camp in Gran Canaria.

Fortunately, his symptoms were mild but his enforced time off the bike saw him miss Opening Weekend in Belgium and Strade Bianche. He belatedly began his season at Tirreno-Adriatico, with legs deprived of race miles.

Usually, that would not be an issue. You used to be able to turn up to a race like Tirreno with the intention of riding yourself into some form. Not this year. The likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe, Tadej Pogacar and Wout van Aert had different ideas.

Each day, the level of racing was like a Monument in itself. Those four key protoganists traded knock-out blows over and over again with the poor peloton, Sagan included, having to absorb the punches like washed-up has-beens being battered in one final bout against the next big thing.

Each day, Sagan would be shot out the back of the peloton as the new guard continued their daily fight at the front of affairs. The situation was looking ominous.

Before San Remo, I spent time playing out a million and one scenarios on how Sagan could potentially win another Monument. In every scenario, he lost.

But then San Remo happened and I was left with a splattering of egg on my face. As the three-time former World Champion sprinted for fourth behind a savvy Jasper Stuyven, I thought to myself ‘fool me for doubting Peter The Great’.

Ok, sure, this year’s Milan-San Remo wasn't the hardest we’ve ever seen. The helpful hand of a tailwind for the last 100km or so and balmy 16 degree temperatures saw the race pass by at near-record speeds of 45kmh. Van der Poel’s promises of nuclear attacks from as far out as the three Capo climbs were broken.

All the action came down to the Poggio and the final 9km and even then, the attacks from Alaphilippe and others felt more like testing jabs rather than showstopping haymakers.

But regardless, Sagan was a match for everything Alaphilippe, Van der Poel and Van Aert had this weekend. Just a week after his pitiful Tirreno performances, Sagan was back at the front of affairs, looking hungry for victory and while he still only managed to sprint for fourth, a result at La Primavera he has now endured five times in his career, he showed that there is still life in the old dog yet.

‘It was a bittersweet Milano San Remo for me,’ said Sagan on his website.

‘On the one hand, I’m happy because I’m feeling better and my form is gradually improving, although there is still work to be done to reach a top-level. On the other hand, I’m a bit angry because it was another Milano-San Remo where I missed the chance to get a victory.’

Those sound like the words of a man who did not leave everything on the road, a man who has more to give.

Now he heads off this week’s Volta a Cataluyna as he continues to build his form and confidence. In two weeks he will head to the Tour of Flanders – a race which he won back at the height of his stardom in 2016 – but this time in the unique situation, at least for Sagan, of not being one of the race favourites but rather an underdog, a position I do not think Sagan has ever faced during his cycling career.

And just how very Sagan would it be if he went on to win the thing?