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Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images (File).

Sagan: no Omloop, no Strade, all-in for spring monuments

To handle the demands of racing to win from Sanremo through Liège, Peter Sagan opts for a special high-altitude prep that skips classic openers.

For the second year in a row, Peter Sagan’s road to the spring classics doesn’t go through the Belgian spring opener this weekend. And there won’t be a detour to Strade Bianche either.

Instead of racing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider is tucked away on a mountaintop high in Spain’s Sierra Nevada.

The calendar tweaks reflect two things: Sagan’s singular focus on winning the monuments as well as the allure of racing the new-look Liège-Bastogne-Liège in late April.

“We focus on the classics. The three main of the goals for Peter are Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix,” Vila told VeloNews. “Last year, we added Amstel. We moved everything back in the preparation. Even the training camp is a little further back. We’ll see about Liège.”

At 29, the Slovakian superstar is hitting a new phase of his career. He’s no longer an upstart wunderkind with something to prove. Sagan is one of the sport’s leading stars, and as he nears 30, he is putting more emphasis on hunting the major classics on the international schedule.

Think quality over quantity.

Peter Sagan

“We had a nice change last when we completely changed our training calendar,” Vila explained. “We had him skiing, we took him out of a few races, we opened time for Peter to be with his family. When he works, he works harder than anyone. But he also wants to have fun. We cannot burn out the riders. The management is very open to this stuff, and we are thinking out of the box.”

With three world titles already on his palmares, Sagan wants more monuments. He has won Ronde van Vlaanderen (2016) and Paris-Roubaix (2018). After twice finishing second at Milano-Sanremo, Sagan is keen to check that box as well.

That means his coaches are scaling back his racing commitments so that Sagan can hit the season highlights as fresh and motivated as possible. Last year, the team incorporated a large training block for Sagan at the high-altitude training facility in Spain’s Sierra Nevada.

As a result, Sagan didn’t race Omloop or Kuurne in 2018, but still lined up for Strade Bianche. This year, he’s skipping the increasingly popular race over the gravel roads of Tuscany and won’t race again until Tirreno-Adriatico on March 13.

It might not seem like one day of racing could make that much of a difference, but Vila said the demands of Strade Bianche following a long spell at altitude were too much of a shock even for the likes of Sagan. This year, the team wants to see Sagan hold his peak form from Sanremo well into late April for a possible Liège run, so something had to give.

“Last year, in terms of fatigue for the team, Strade Bianche was the hardest race of the year for us,” Vila said. “Racing Strade Bianche was a little bit of too much impact for Peter last year. If it’s a dry Strade, you can get through it. It was almost 4,000 meters of climbing, and when it’s a little bit wet, it takes a lot of power to get up those gravel climbs. It depends on the weather, but Strade Bianche can be the hardest one-day race of the season in terms of fatigue.”

Peter Sagan

Sagan eased into 2019 with a month of solid racing at the season opener at the Santos Tour Down Under and the Vuelta a San Juan in warm Australia and Argentina. He picked up a win in Australia and put in some important early season base miles in nice weather.

“These first races, in terms of the impact on the riders, it’s almost like training. It’s that last 5-10 minutes of intensity. It’s a nice balance for this time of year,” Vila said. “These races work well for Peter. He likes to travel around the world. It doesn’t affect him much.”

Vila, a former pro who’s evolved into a key member of Sagan’s circle of trust, has been tweaking Sagan’s calendar and training program slowly over the past two seasons. The aim is to see Sagan continue to perform at the highest levels of the sport without burning him out or making things too routine.

Sagan has been racing at the top already for nearly a decade, and Vila knows that even the best pros like Sagan need continue to evolve even if the larger goals of the season — spring classics, the Tour de France and the world championships — largely remain unchanged from year to year. Like Liège, Sagan has never raced the Giro d’Italia either, though there are hints he might start the Italian grand tour as soon as next season.

“We always try to do something new,” he said. “We try to keep riders happy with their calendars. From management, we need to be ready for the main goals of the year, but also to propose new goals for the riders.

“A rider has a natural evolution during their career,” he continued. “It’s something I call the ‘sporting project.’ From neo-pro to the end of his career, there are so many factors to consider. How do we keep him motivated and winning from when they’re a neo-pro all the way to the end of their career? It depends on keeping them motivated, on the training load, on the goals. Peter loves to race.”

Peter Sagan

So what about Liège? Ever since it was confirmed that the finale would be held on the flats coming into downtown Liège rather than atop the hill at Ans, speculation began that Sagan would finally take on the famous “Doyenne,” the only monument he’s never raced.

Vila confirmed Sagan is hoping to race Liège on April 28 but said it is not a guarantee he will be at the start line.

“We will see how the shape and the condition is, and then make the decision,” he said. “Last year was the same. We focused on Roubaix, and then decided to go into Amstel.”

The classics period is one of the most intense blocks of the year, even more so for riders like Sagan who expect to win every time they toe the line. The pressure to deliver results is compounded even more when an entire season can be judged on the outcome of three or four key one-day races.

Trying to add Liège to Sagan’s training and racing calendar is harder than it might seem. Most northern classics specialists wind things down after Roubaix or Amstel Gold Race the following weekend. It’s pretty rare in the modern era to see a cobblestone-style rider race from Sanremo all the way through to Liège.

The cobbles and the Ardennes attract different styles of riders, so naturally, most racers specialize in one or the other. Right now, the foci remain the key three races of Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix. Sagan isn’t undergoing any radical change in his style or approach to the calendar for Liège. This year they will try to extend his classics season by an extra week and see how it goes.

With the temptation of the new Liège course, Sagan is at least hoping to give it a run.

“Liège is a damn hard race, especially after all the classics period,” Vila said. “With a fresh Peter, the new course suits him better, but after all the classics, it’s another story. These guys come off the hard classics period really tired, and it’s hard on the mind, too. It’s a very stressful month. The psychological aspect counts a lot as well.”

Vila was playing down Sagan’s chances of pulling off a miracle win at Liège, but at the same time, he didn’t discount it, either, After all, this is Peter Sagan we’re talking about.

“We are getting used to this kind of stuff with him. It seems unnatural, but he’s doing it,” Vila said. I think that his baseline — his normal level — is so high, that with training, he is able to win. And he has that instinct and that winning spirit. That is why he is the way he is.”