Peter Sagan was still on the road, pedaling out the closing kilometers of stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico when Julian Alaphilippe, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel were busy cracking champagne and posing for photographs together on the winners’ podium.
The former triple world champion finished over 15 minutes down after the hilly stage to Chiusdino on Thursday, tapping out the final uphill finish in the first of two grupettos with the heavyweight sprinters, WorldTour rookies, and domestiques.
Not so long ago, Sagan would have been an odds-on bet to take the challenge to cycling’s “big three” of Alaphilippe, van Aert and van der Poel in stage 2’s uphill sprint. Likewise for stage 3, contested between van der Poel and van Aert as Sagan rolled home way down the pack.
Sagan’s 133rd-place finish on Thursday, way out of contention and even further out of the headlines, makes for a snapshot of the slow pivot of the world’s attention from Sagan’s personality and panache toward pro cycling’s new kids on the block.
The 31-year-old is still on the comeback from a case of COVID-19 this February, a setback that saw him in isolation for over six weeks in Tenerife. During that time, van der Poel and Co. were roaring into form through the early season events he had been scheduled to race.
Cycling is pedaling forward fast, and Sagan is at risk of getting blown out the back.
Speaking earlier this week to La Gazzetta Dello Sport, Sagan had said that this week’s race in Italy was part of a slow build back to form having had to sit out the opening classics of the season.
“I lost almost all the base of my winter work. I have to build my legs and find my rhythm,” he said. “I’m not surprised that there is a lot of talk about Van Aert and Van der Poel, given what they’re doing. I count on improving, one stage at a time, one step at a time, without thinking about it too much.”
When asked again about van Aert, van der Poel and Alaphilippe ahead of stage 3 Friday, Sagan suggested victory is still in the legs – it’s just a matter of time
“When I can beat them? When I have recovered,” he told Sporza.
Yet Sagan is running short on time as his first major targets for the year loom into view.
A return to the cobblestones is central to the former Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner’s early-season schedule. Sagan will line up against all three of van der Poel, van Aert and Alaphilippe at De Ronde in little over three weeks, April 4.
Will Sagan have the legs to challenge in Oudenaarde or will he again find himself in a grupetto, out of sight and out of mind? With van der Poel, van Aert and Alaphilippe rampaging through the early season, and Sagan starting from scratch, it’s hard to see the Slovakian muscling into their podium party any time soon.
The “Julian van der Wout” hype-train is only just pulling out of the station and will likely gather a whole new momentum as the monuments draw closer. The trio’s emergence at the top of pro cycling is too tantalizing to resist given their similar ages, backgrounds, and skillsets, and seeing them sprinting for the line against each other in Tirreno Adriatico on Thursday made for bike nerd nirvana.
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Sagan is at a real risk of becoming the forgotten man of the pro peloton, and this year more than ever is the year he needs to work some magic and please those pulling the purse strings.
With one year left on his contract, just one win to his name in over 18 months, and an increasing focus on grand tour racing at his Bora-Hansgrohe squad, the 31-year-old could become surplus to requirements and struggling for new options.
His deal with Bora-Hansgrohe expires in 2021, and the team is pushing into new territory with new riders and ambitions. Promising young cobbles-basher Nils Politt signed to a three-year deal this winter. Wilco Kelderman was scooped up to add heft to the squad’s increasing attention on GC placings with the likes of Emanuel Buchmann and Patrick Konrad.
Though Sagan guarantees his team space in the headlines whether he performs or not, with a reported five million euro pay-packet, he makes for an expensive luxury. If Sagan ends up on the look-out for a new team next season, few will be able to afford him, and those remaining won’t want him on the books unless he proves himself in the next eight months.
Cycling needs Sagan. Dear cycling, please don’t forget him.
The notion of Sagan quietly fading from view is a sad prospect.
Sure, van der Poel, van Aert and Alaphilippe provide more than enough sparkle to any race they start and have a rivalry that could play out for years to come. And although the threesome all tout the gripping racecraft and dazzling bike handling that put Sagan in the limelight through the middle of the last decade, none of them pack the Slovak’s all-around charisma and celebrity.
Ask Alaphilippe how he feels after a stage win and he’ll say something about his love of attacking and pride of the rainbow jersey. Van Aert will say something “nice” – thoughtful but over-considered. And it’s hard to connect with van der Poel and his otherworldly power and air of invincibility.
Speak to Sagan after a stage, and you’ll get any of a pick’n mix of barbed put-down, bizarre joke, or thoughtful insight. He’s one of the last personalities in a peloton increasingly under pressure to thank sponsors, teammates and offer a neutral, unprovocative script.
And on top of that, when at his pomp, the former world champ is one of the most dazzling bike riders you’re likely to see. Just the idea of him at his best attacking in a breakaway with van der Poel, van Aert, Alaphilippe, and cycling’s new generation makes the mouth water, and his return to form would make a good thing for the whole cycling space.
The season is still young and Sagan has time to hit his stride, whether it be for the classics or further down the line. If he doesn’t, he could be put out to pasture, and that will be a very said thing.
Dear wheelying, shape-throwing, enigmatic Sagan, please come back soon. Cycling needs you.