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ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) — No one has any answers for Peter Sagan. Not even entire teams, one of which sports two former world champions.
Mark Cavendish sat tucked inside the door of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step bus Tuesday, and put words to the suffocating presence of Peter Sagan.
“That guy’s pretty unbeatable right now,” Cavendish said. “He’s a once-in-a-generation rider, for sure. He is super, super good. He’s making us all look like juniors, I think.”
Sagan (Cannondale) won stage 1 of VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne) Tuesday, after attacking on the race’s final climb, the Eikenmolen, to force a split in the peloton and eliminate a big sprint. The split took a sprint finish away from Cavendish, who certainly isn’t racing De Panne for his health.
“Nobody can control the race because Sagan is using all the right tactics. He did a lot of pain to the sprinter teams,” said Omega boss Patrick Lefevere after the stage. “We tried it and I think it was a good thing that [Niki] Terpstra and [Sylvain] Chavanel were in the front, because nobody could control it.”
It would seem on its face that Sagan rode à bloc on Tuesday in order to thin the herd and take the sprint, but he said the ride was more training than racing, a testament to just how good the 23-year-old is as he tunes up for the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday.
“The form — the form is good,” Sagan said at the post-race press conference. “The condition is what I expect. For Flanders, I would like to do something more.”
Sagan added that he only hopes to tune his fitness at De Panne, but that “of course” he was happy for the win.
For his foes, Sagan has proven as oppressive as he is enigmatic. On Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem, he made the final selection and was the absolute favorite to win in a sprint. Instead, he rode off the front with four kilometers to go, soloing home for his first major classics win.
On Tuesday at De Panne, he again made a final selection on a very lumpy stage, and won again, this time in a sprint. It’s proven confounding for his rivals, notably Omega Pharma, which has two riders in Tom Boonen and Cavendish that Sagan can beat in different ways. Omega fought to hold the race together Tuesday, and Sagan was able to stretch out the Belgian team, which had riders all over the road, including Boonen pulling on the front of the main field.
He’s frustrated no team recently more than Lefevere’s Omega roster, which has been quiet thus far in its native Belgium. Neither Cavendish nor Lefevere said they were outright frustrated with the lack of results thus far, but there is no arguing around the fact that Omega, and the others, are at least flummoxed.
“If you’re frustrated, you’re not a good adviser,” Lefevere said. “His team is still better and better. … The team is as good as its leader. And if you see if you’re a real leader like Sagan, the team is strong. We have a very strong team, but it’s difficult to organize the race if Sagan attacks.”
That unpredictability — over whether he will attack from distance or sprint — is setting Sagan up as the top favorite headed into De Ronde. It’s no wonder he’s riding this way, given his penchant for panache and furious riding in all terrain. In his Tour de France debut in 2012, Sagan won two classics-style romps and a bunch sprint, and nearly scored a mountain stage from a breakaway to boot. Earlier this month at Tirreno-Adriatico, he beat Cavendish and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) in a bunch sprint. Two days later, he kicked past climbers Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) to win the race’s GC-deciding penultimate stage.
“When I became professional, my ambition was to be the best,” he said. “On the climbs, on the sprints, be a protagonist everywhere. Now we see that working … the goal is to take the most wins as possible. And the most important race, of course.”
The “most important” race, however, seems to be the one Sagan finds himself in at any given time. “It’s really simple,” he said. “To be an all-rounder, you have to be complete everywhere, in every aspect.”
As for this Sunday, Sagan knows his fitness is good, and his tactical acumen is growing daily. He missed the critical move by Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) on the Oude Kwaremont last Friday at E3 Harelbeke before attacking his way to the win in Wevelgem. But there’s that one other element in a classic, though, and even Sagan isn’t unwise to it.
“I need only luck for Sunday,” he said.
It’s the others, though, that need luck even more.