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Sagan on slow boil heading into key races

Decision to race through to Liège means Sagan is only approaching peak form, but team and rivals still see him as Flanders threat.

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ROESELARE, Belgium (VN) — Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) might not be barnstorming into Sunday’s Tour of Flanders like he typically does. That’s by design.

Sagan’s decision to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the first time later this month has tweaked his approach to this year’s Flemish classics. That means the peloton has seen a different Sagan than in year’s past. Rather than blowing the wheels off everyone so far in Belgium, Sagan’s been easing into Flanders week on a slow boil.

It’s a high-stakes bet for everyone inside Planet Sagan, but officials insist Sagan is ready to race to win Sunday at the Ronde.

“Peter is fine,” Sagan’s coach and trainer Patxi Vila told VeloNews. “We had some ups and downs during the preparation, but in the last three, four weeks, we’ve fixed them. He is ready to race.”

Bora-Hansgrohe has been walking a tight rope this spring coming into the Flemish classics.

Typically, Sagan is firing at all cylinders during cycling’s “Holy Week,” with his targeted peak at the book-ended races of Milano-Sanremo through Paris-Roubaix. This year, that targeted peak is moved back to include Liège on April 28.

“We changed everything,” Vila explained. “The racing calendar and the preparation, and we moved everything back one or two weeks to get to Liège.”

So far, Sagan only has one victory this season and no podiums through the spring classics. Are the alarm bells ringing? No, said a relaxed Sagan on Saturday.

“It always depends on results, not the form,” Sagan said during a press conference. “If I win tomorrow, I will say I am exquisite. If I do not, I will say my form is bad.”

Sagan’s decision to race deep into April and test the Liège waters has had a ripple effect across Sagan’s approach to this year’s classics calendar.

Adding an extra two weeks of peak racing might not seem like much from the outside, but in order to keep Sagan at winning form from Flanders on April 6 all the way through Liège on April 28 meant a few things behind the scenes.

First off, Sagan switched around his training and racing calendar. Following up on last year, Sagan skipped the “opening weekend” at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Sagan also tweaked his training program to be able to race another two weeks at a high level during his peak spring calendar.

Rather than hitting form early enough to run at high gear from Milano-Sanremo through Roubaix, Sagan has been noticeably off peak form in these early Belgian races.

Rivals have noticed, but are skeptical about counting out Sagan of any of the major races.

“If you know Sagan, he’s always been decisive and dominant, but this year, he’s a little off,” said Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team). “It’s a little strange that he’s not on his level yet. But you don’t know, the step to the top level is not far with him. Maybe he will peak later, he’s still there and capable of winning the race on Sunday.”

Rivals saw that Sagan didn’t have his trademark finish line kick at San Remo, where he finished fourth. At E3 BinckBank Classic, Sagan had trouble following the lethal accelerations thrown down by Van Avermaet. And in Gent-Wevelgem, Sagan found himself in the decisive early breakaway only to run out of gas in the final kick to the line in a reduced bunch sprint.

Sagan also fell ill during a key preparation period coming into Tirreno-Adriatico, and was missing the winning kick at San Remo, where he was fourth.

But the pressure is on to win a “big” one. Bora-Hansgrohe manager Ralf Denk said at this point of Sagan’s career, only victories in monuments count.

“The ambitions are high. A good spring season for us is if we win a monument,” Denk said. “In the end, we would like to win a monument, this is the goal. After Liège, if we win something, we can say it’s good. Otherwise, we have to look forward to next year.”

Sagan boasts two monuments to his already impressive palmares, with Flanders in 2016 and Roubaix in 2018. He’s been close at San Remo, and his natural affinity is to shine on the punishing cobblestone roads of Belgium and northern France.

When race officials confirmed that the Liège finale was being moved from the hilltop finish at Ans down to the flat valley floor to the historic finish line in downtown Liège, it created a unique opportunity for Sagan. He’s never raced cycling’s “doyenne,” and with the new, race-changing finale that suits Sagan, the team wanted to at least try.

“We think it’s a good opportunity,” Vila said to add Liège to Sagan’s calendar. “Peter is still a rider for the northern classics, but [the new Liège finish] was one of the big points.”

Sagan’s focus remains on Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and the team will decide exactly what Sagan will race between Roubaix and Liège after the dust settles in the Roubaix velodrome. Amstel Gold Race and perhaps Flèche Wallonne might be included ahead of Liège.

The team, however, doesn’t want to wait long for a chance to celebrate, and hopes Sagan hits a peak just in time to shine in Sunday’s Ronde.

“We get paid to win monuments,” Vila said. “Our success is measured by our wins. We hope we will get that win as soon as possible, and our manager will be more relaxed.”

Sagan doesn’t seem too ruffled, and shot down any suggestion that he’s under extra pressure to win any more than any other year.

“Always the same questions, what is pressure?” Sagan said. “You cannot change anything. We are going to race, and we are going to do our best, then what happens, will happen. What more can you do?”