Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will need to overcome a crop of fresh rivals in Yorkshire if he wants to become the only rider to ever win four rainbow jerseys.
Worlds week opens with growing anticipation across a demanding course and predicted rainy and cool weather, setting the stage for exciting clashes in men’s and women’s racing on road and time trial events.
The Slovakian will line up in Sunday’s marquee road race for a shot at a record fourth title. It won’t be easy on a course that is expected to be wet and technical, with new emerging talents – Belgian Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) among them – and some familiar faces all ready to stake their claim.
Sagan, with typical aplomb, shrugged off the prospects of making history.
“And what is going to change if that happens? Nothing,” Sagan told Sporza when asked about becoming the first to win four world men’s titles in the event dating back to 1927.
Sagan’s cool response is in sharp contrast to the daring rider who stormed to a string of three straight wins in Richmond, Doha, and Bergen, respectively, becoming the first rider to win three rainbow jerseys in a row. Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) ended the streak to claim gold on the Innsbruck course.
The 285km Yorkshire course is better suited to Sagan than the steep Austrian climbs of a year ago. His technical skills as a former mountain biker and his sprint will serve well navigating the likely wet English peaks heading towards Harrogate.
If he were to reach his “goal” of fourth win, he would top the record of three he currently shares with Oscar Freire, Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx, and Alfredo Binda.
“Yeah [I am motivated], that’s why I race more world championships, but it’s not easy to win, it’s just better to keep your feet on the ground,” Sagan continued.
“Definitely I am not dreaming during the night about the world championships, but we can call it a goal.”
Since Sagan sprinted ahead of Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) to win his third title in Bergen in 2017, cycling’s landscape has changed.
New names are gaining ground. Egan Bernal (Ineos), 22 years old, became the first Colombian to win the Tour de France and the youngest in the modern era this July. The much-hyped Evenepoel, just 19, won the Clásica San Sebastián in August, and all-rounder van der Poel, 24, is crowded in on Sagan’s turf.
“He’s young, he’s strong, anything can happen in life. Everything is possible,” Sagan said of Evenepoel. “I did some races with him, and he impressed me. But every time it gets harder and harder to win because he is not going to be new.”
Evenepoel was also quick to try to downplay expectations. More experienced riders such as former world champion Gilbert and Olympic champion Van Avermaet are better suited for longer, grueling route in Yorkshire.
“I did not expect that I would be part of the Belgian world championship team on the road in my first professional year,” Evenepoel said.
“I don’t want to miss such an opportunity, though. If you have goals and you work for something, you have to dare to take steps towards it.”
The Netherlands, hot off winning the mixed team relay world title Sunday, is leading with van der Poel. In his first serious run on the road this spring, the cycle-cross world champion won the Amstel Gold Race and placed fourth in Tour of Flanders. This month, he won three stages and the overall in the Tour of Britain in dominant fashion.
Jan Bakelants (Sunweb) said that van der Poel should be counted among the favorites on the course, which contains plenty of twists and turns.
“It is a lot of twist and turns, so it is perfect for Mathieu van der Poel,” Bakelants said. “You really have to be a pilot on some parts. And Mathieu is a pilot, he can save a lot of energy with his agility. And it is not just that. [In the Primus Classic on Saturday] we saw it again: He is more than OK.”
To have a shot at toppling cycling’s king of the worlds, van der Poel rode an extra 100km after racing the Belgian Primus Classic over the weekend. He launched a blistering attack over the cobbled climb to gap the likes of Van Avermaet behind, but Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) won later in a sprint.
“Am I the favorite for the worlds win? Maybe so,” van der Poel said. “But compared to the other races, the worlds is something different. But I’ve tested my legs, and they feel good.”