Sagan poised to start 2015 season under monumental pressure

Peter Sagan has accomplished many feats in cycling, but winning a monument is not one of them

Will Peter Sagan stand and deliver a monumental victory this season?

That will be one of the major storylines of 2015 as the precocious Slovak makes his Tinkoff-Saxo debut at the Tour of Qatar (2.HC) on Sunday in what will be a highly anticipated start with huge expectations on his shoulders this season.

Whether he shrugs off that pressure and knocks it out of the park remains to be seen.

Sagan is undoubtedly one of the most talented riders of his generation. Three green jerseys and more than 60 victories on his palmares reflect his innate talent and ambition. At 25, he’s already accomplished more than most riders manage in their entire careers.

Sagan is one of the peloton’s true “todos terrenos” — he can win in all nearly all terrain; in sprints, breakaways, one-day classics, in hilly terrain, and even excels in short time trials.

Yet there’s the one blot that will haunt him until he erases it, and that’s winning one of cycling’s monuments. He’s been painstakingly close already, but until he wins one, there will be an asterisk next to his otherwise stellar CV.

If there’s a growing sense of urgency, everyone at Tinkoff is trying to downplay that pressure, at least publicly.

“Everyone knows Sagan is a rider of quality. It’s just a matter of time before he wins a monument,” said Tinkoff sport director Lars Michaelsen. “It’s obvious he has the class. We’ll be doing everything possible to help him win some big races this year.”

The question of — “when will you win a big one?” — clearly irritates Sagan. More than annoying, Sagan finds it almost as an insult. Throughout last year’s spring classics campaign, Sagan became clearly more than annoyed each time a journalist pestered him about winning Milano-Sanremo or the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Sagan was downright snippy after winning E3 Prijs last year when queried by journalists.

Sagan certainly seems destined to win more than his fair share of monuments. He finished second in Sanremo and Flanders in 2013.

“We are not in a hurry. Of course, we want Peter to win, and he wants to win, but there is no pressure,” Michaelsen continued. “The journalists make a big story, but we know Peter will win races. The classics are complicated. Anything can happen in a one-day race.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Sagan, or for Tinkoff. Team owner Oleg Tinkov shelled out millions to lure Sagan for a three-year deal. With Alberto Contador shining in the grand tours, Tinkov needed a world-class classics rider to round out his dreams of dynasty.

At Tinkoff, Sagan will see deeper support perhaps than he had at Liquigas, both on and off the bike. Specialized, which already has solid experience in the classics backing such riders as Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step), has been working closely with Sagan to give him the best ride possible for the classics. Ex-pro Bobby Julich has been tapped as Sagan’s personal coach, and will help outline his approach to the critical one-day monuments in March and April.

Tinkoff also will provide expert backing from the likes of Michaelsen and Tristan Hoffman, two former classics strongmen in their day. And riders such as Matti Breschel and Daniele Bennati, among others, will give Sagan solid support in the heat of the moment.

The sense of destiny is what’s pushing Tinkoff into 2015. Sagan has started 11 monuments and finished nine, and has placed inside the top 20 except in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix. Since then, he’s been in the top 10 every time, except with a DNF at the 2013 Giro di Lombardia and 16th at last year’s Tour of Flanders.

It all starts this weekend in the Tour of Qatar.

“I raced in Qatar four years ago, and that was the start of a great season,” Sagan said in a team release of 2012, when he went on to win two stages and the first of three green jerseys at the Tour de France.

“I think it’s the right race for my official start in the Tinkoff-Saxo jersey,” he continued. “I look forward to start racing there.”

The Qatar tour is a favorite testing ground for the classics specialists to hone their form going into the major races. Blasted by desert crosswinds, the otherwise flat parcours become a high-speed joust between the major teams, where the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Tom Boonen (Etixx), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) will be bashing each other.

The 25-year-old Sagan will be looking to make an impression against such heady company.

Sagan will stay in the Middle East to race the Tour of Oman before returning to Europe with Tirreno-Adriatico. From there, it’s nothing but big hits, with Milano-Sanremo, E3, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders, GP Scheldeprijs, Roubaix, and perhaps the Ardennes.

But it’s not results in February that count for Sagan. Whether he likes it or not, he will be judged by what happens over a string of weekends through March and April.