Yet just hours away from the elite men’s road race Sunday, it’s Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel who are getting the hype for the stripes on a hilly, technical course that — on paper at least — fits Sagan like a glove.
“It will be an interesting race,” Sagan told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Sometimes it looks like a bit like the Tour of Flanders, but it’s different. With the cobblestone climbs and the local city circuit, it’s very technical. It’s a lot of up and down, and it will be a big fight.”
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Sagan, if he wins, could become the first rider to win four rainbow jerseys.
After a rough-and-tumble 18 months or so, Sagan is both realistic and optimistic at the same time.
“I have a chance on this course,” Sagan told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I might have another shot in Australia [in the 2022 worlds – ed]. If I win another one, I will be the record-holder.”
Eddy Merckx, Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen, and Óscar Freire also won three. No one could punch through to the fourth.
Regaining his winning ways
These are different times for Sagan, however.
In 2020, he ended up racing both the Tour de France and, as promised, the Giro d’Italia, and ended up skipping the worlds last year in Imola.
Health issues also knocked him back, including a bout with COVID-19 that took the wind out of his sails in the spring classics in 2021.
A crash with Caleb Ewan in stage 3 at the Tour de France was another setback just when things appeared to be back on track, a fall that eventually required surgery.
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After skipping the Tokyo Olympic Games, Sagan prepared for the worlds with an altitude camp in Andorra, and won the overall title at the Tour of Slovakia in what was his fourth GC win of his career.
“The condition is good,” said Sagan, who also inspected the course following the Benelux Tour. “I am looking forward to the world championships. I wanted to see the course because it’s been a long time since I rode Brabantse Pijl. The course covers some of these roads, but it’s been a long time.”
What about the two important climbs, the Antoniusberg and the Moskenstraat, on the circuits?
“I don’t know the names of those slopes yet, but I’m not worried,” Sagan said. “With such a long course, almost 270 km, you will come to a difficult race anyway. Sure, it depends on how you race, but it will be fun.
“After each cobblestone slope there is a flat section, but if the weather is bad and the wind is good, it can be a nice, hectic race.”
The favorite? Sagan won’t pick just one.
“Of course everything depends on the shape of the day, the course of the race, the weather can play a role,” Sagan said. “As always I’m doing my best, the course suits me, and I’m going to try to enjoy it.”
Having fun for Sagan usually means a bad day for everyone else.
We’ll find out Sunday.