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After 2016, Sagan has even loftier goals

After 2016 when he won at will, Peter Sagan has even loftier goals this season, like Paris-Roubaix and a record-tying sixth green jersey.

The young boy stopped in his tracks and stared. His mouth was agape as his father whispered in his ear, “Yes, son, that is Peter Sagan.” Standing before him, tall and in the flesh, was cycling’s superhero, clad in his rainbow jersey, hair pulled back in a man-bun.

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It was just after the third stage of the Santos Tour Down Under. Sagan had traveled to Australia to build early-season racing fitness on sunny roads. He also posed for photos alongside kangaroos and koalas, danced with his wife at the TDU’s annual Legend’s Dinner, and greeted his adoring fans.

So when the boy bravely stuck out his hand, a bemused Sagan stopped for an introduction. “I am relaxed. I don’t let the fans bother me. I am happy they want to see me,” Sagan told VeloNews with a shrug. “I am happy that I make them happy when I win bike races. Everyone is happy!”

Sagan and his team hope that his adoring public will have plenty to cheer about during the first months of the 2017 season. Since his debut in 2010, Sagan has targeted the spring classics, especially Milano-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix. In 2016 he blasted through the wall with an emphatic win at Flanders. The huge win was the marquee result in a year that included the Tour de France’s green jersey, big one-day wins in Canada and Belgium, and the world championships.

After his best year to date, Sagan has even bigger plans for 2017, and those plans center squarely on cycling’s springtime races.

“I want to win more classics,” Sagan says. “It seems like I have won many, but I have only won one. I would like a few more — why not?”

CHOOSING TO OPEN HIS 2017 on a lighter note, Sagan frolicked for three weeks in Australia. When he wasn’t racing, he pulled wheelies at a Specialized pop-up store and rode long training miles in the sun. During the race, he led out new Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Sam Bennett in the sprints and helped Australian Jay McCarthy sneak onto the final podium. He also gathered three second-place finishes to Aussie sprint sensation Caleb Ewan.

By February, Sagan had gotten down to the serious business of classics preparation. He trekked to Spain’s Sierra Nevada and embarked on three weeks of altitude training, which replicated his preparation from 2016. From there, he traveled to the opening weekend in Belgium, then to Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, and the northern classics.

“Last year was a really good year, but we are here to keep going and to keep improving,” says ex-pro Patxi Vila, who acts as Sagan’s go-to sport director, part-time trainer, and full-time mentor. “I see him more motivated than he was last year. We want to keep improving and set new objectives.”

There’s no secret about Sagan’s objectives for 2017: He wants to win Paris-Roubaix and Milan-Sanremo, two races that have eluded him so far. In six Sanremo starts, Sagan has finished second in 2013 and never outside of the top 20 — on Saturday he was second again, behind Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski. Roubaix is a different story. The rough and tumble battle over the pavé has proven harder to master; in five starts, his best has been sixth in 2014.

“Roubaix is a different race, because it’s not only the legs, but there is some luck involved as well,” Vila says. “It’s one of the big targets of the spring, along with Sanremo and Flanders. It’s a five-star objective.”

Vila has ambitious goals for his student. Sagan is entering the prime of his career — he turned 27 in January — and he has relatively few five-star rivals for the cobbled races. Vila believes he can become one of the best classics champions ever, perhaps surpassing the recent marks set by Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.

“We want Peter to be the leader of his era,” Vila says. “This year will be special, and we want to make it as good or even better than 2016.”

NOT ONLY DOES Peter Sagan want to establish himself as the king of the cobbles, he also has his sights on the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour de France’s green jersey, and the world title.

“One of our top goals this year with Peter is to win the green jersey at the Tour,” says Bora-Hansgrohe manager Ralph Denk. For the team’s German sponsors, the return of the Tour to German roads means a big Tour push for Sagan in 2017.

With five points-competition titles in succession, Sagan is on track to equal Erik Zabel’s record of six jerseys and sees little competition in the battle for green. Tour officials have tweaked the points system, in part to make it more difficult for Sagan to hog the competition, but there’s no stopping him.

“The way it is now, it is impossible for anyone else to win the green jersey,” says former Zabel teammate and Dimension Data sport director Ralph Aldag. “If they want Peter Sagan to win the green jersey for the next 10 years, then they can leave the points system the way it is.”

And with his all-around skillset, Sagan could win multiple future world titles. With hilly, challenging circuits on tap for the next three world championships — especially in Bergen, Norway, in 2017 and Yorkshire, England, in 2019 (Innsbruck in 2018 might be too mountainous) — Sagan could equal the three-win record held by Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx, and Óscar Freire. It isn’t too much to think he could break the tie and become the first to win four rainbow jerseys.

“I know Peter is going to win two more titles at least,” said Mark Cavendish after losing to the Slovakian in Doha. “With the worlds courses coming up, who is going to beat Sagan?”

THERE WAS A TIME when journalists debated whether Sagan could morph into a Tour de France contender. Those days appear to be over.

There are other challenges out there for the Slovakian. What about the monument sweep of Sanremo, Flanders, Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia? Only three men in cycling’s history have won all five: Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Rik Van Looy. All three are Belgians, all are legends. Vila says the challenge is on Sagan’s long-term radar.

“Does he have the potential? Yes. Is it the right time? No,” Vila says. “He must keep going in the northern classics, and if one day he has won Roubaix four times and Flanders four times, then he can go for it. Right now, he will focus on the cobbles because he has the potential to win many times there.”

Sagan has asked journalists why winning the classics, green jersey, and worlds isn’t enough. His astounding ability, coupled with his made-for-the-Twitter-age sensibilities, make him the perfect foil for contemporary cycling’s robotic, almost formulaic racing. Sagan is a hero for the post-modern age, at once a throwback and disruptor, someone who can break the mold while simultaneously paying tribute to the versatility of past legends. Let’s hope he stays interested enough to stick around.

“I am not planning too much in my life,” Sagan says. “It’s one more year in the world champion’s jersey — a lot of things can happen this season. The first part of the season is important, and then we will think about the rest.”