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COVID case throws more questions into Peter Sagan puzzle ahead of TotalEnergies debut

Sagan 'not afraid' of pressure to perform with new team despite latest health setback – can Slovak star return to the top in 2022?

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It’s a new year and a new team for Peter Sagan. But it’s also the same COVID and the same questions that hang over the Slovakian as he rolls toward a crucial debut season with Team TotalEnergies.

A second bout of coronavirus in the space of 12 months put the brakes on Sagan’s pre-season preparations last week.

The infection marks the latest in a long line of setbacks to befall the beleaguered baller and continues the questions that have stalked him for the past years – when will Sags be back?

Despite struggling to hold the wheel of the likes of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel in the past two seasons, the former triple world champ was as confident as ever when speaking with l’Equipe this weekend.

“I’m not afraid because since I first started racing, I’ve learned one thing: when you stay focused, success will come,” Sagan said of his high-profile move and recent struggles for form. “Of course, you have to have the will to do it, but I know I have that. If I don’t win one day, I start all over again the next day.”

There’s a sense Sagan will start his career “all over again” when he first lines up for Team TotalEnergies this winter.

The world has long been waiting for the Slovak to light up the peloton like he did when he blazed through the middle of the last decade. Every time Sagan has missed out – whether when he lost his grip on the green jersey at 2020 Tour de France, or when he came close at Milano-Sanremo last year – people have puzzled over whether he’s done.

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The questions confronting Sagan will be louder than ever after his second COVID infection and an eyebrow-raising switch to the second-division TotalEnergies.

Sagan has struggled in a new era of classics shaped by riders like van Aert and van der Poel.

With a host of big-name sponsors, bursting bank balance, and beyond-the-sport celebrity, some question if Sagan saw a move to second-division TotalEnergies as an easy ride toward life on the sofa.

But Sagan isn’t listening to that particular chorus.

“I don’t care what other people think. If you pay attention to everything people say about you, it can be very destructive. I don’t worry about it,” Sagan told l’Equipe.

“The only time I thought about quitting was way before, in 2015, because of some knee and hip problems. But I took care of myself and was back on track. I won a stage of the Tour of California, then the Tour of Flanders, then Paris-Roubaix, the green jersey at the Tour, the world championships… and I’m still here now.”

‘My goals this season are not only personal’

Sagan heads up a newly ambitious TotalEnergies team. (Photo: TeamTeam TotalEnergies)

So what can we expect from Sagan in 2022?

Team Total Energies blew big budget into signing the Slovak and a host of his closest wingmen as it heralds a new Specialized-backed dawn and eyes a spot in the WorldTour.

Sagan remains as boisterous as ever and wants to crush the classics this year. Riders like Edvald Boasson Hagen, Anthony Turgis, and Niki Terpstra should theoretically see the Sagan-led French crew punch above its weight class.

But how will a second brush with COVID and the need to match team and personal ambitions see Sagan this spring?

Sagan spent last week isolating at his home in Monaco, delaying a trip to Spain for a pre-season camp with his new team.

Although there is little indication of how seriously Sagan is feeling the virus this second time around, his experience with it in 2021 forced him to delay his season debut and robbed him of a training base for the year. It set the tone on a tricky season symbolized by his crash and abandon at the Tour de France.

 

When Sagan does start racing this winter he will be weighted by two pressures.

“My goals this season are not only personal. I’m well aware that the team recruited me to score points, to try to join the World Tour,” Sagan said.

TotalEnergies boss Jean-René Bernaudeau sees Sagan as his team’s ticket toward the top flight of the sport. Having the triple world champ on board opens the door to lucrative race-starts and – he’s hoping – a slew of results will give his squad the points required to enter the first division.

Also read: ‘The team showed respect for me’ – Sagan talks TotalEnergies

It’s a huge burden for Sagan, but one he’s familiar with.

“We are going to build a team around me and this is what attracts me to the project. It’s pressure, sure, but it’s just been my routine for a long time. It was no different with my old teams,” Sagan said late last year.

“When I joined Bora-Hansgrohe in 2016, people also spoke of it as a small team. The real question concerning TotalEnergies is not knowing what kind of team it is at the time I speak to you, but what path it intends to take. I don’t care that they’re not currently on the World Tour, I want to help it grow.”

Sagan will be 33 years old when his contract expires in 2023. If he hasn’t harvested the results Bernaudeau wants for TotalEnergies by then, it will be difficult to see where he goes next.