Welcome back, Peter. We’ve missed you

Andrew Hood writes about Peter Sagan's return to racing after his controversial expulsion from the Tour de France.

After his ignominious exclusion from the Tour de France last month, cycling’s one-man show is picking up where he left off.

Peter Sagan keeps being, well, Peter Sagan.

What did he do? In his first race back since his controversial Tour disqualification, he smashed it home to victory in the opening stage at the Tour of Poland on July 29. And he did it again Monday, winning the opening stage of the BinckBank Tour in a photo finish for his 98th career victory.

“I was very lucky in the finish, because I thought I had been passed at the line,” Sagan said. “I took the win because I threw my bike at the last second.”

Sagan is a gift that keeps on giving. And it’s great to have him back.

Sagan’s controversial exclusion left an indelible mark on the 2017 Tour. And for some, the Tour wasn’t even worth watching without Sagan in the mix.

In fact, the viral reaction on social media to Sagan’s removal from the Tour revealed just how popular the 27-year-old Slovakian has become.

A few years ago, someone within Sagan’s inner circle suggested he could emerge to be a kind of rider who eclipses cycling. The name that came to mind was MotoGP’s Valentino Rossi, who, in his heyday, was front-page news.

At the time, however, those suggestions seemed unlikely. Still in early his early 20s, Sagan was stifled and uncomfortable in the public eye. And, despite a prolific start, he still hadn’t won a “big one.” His emphatic road race title at the 2015 Richmond worlds catapulted him into the stratosphere and officially opened the Sagan era.

Rather than buckle under the pressure that came with the stripes, Sagan has only flourished. Both on and off the bike, he has indeed emerged as that break-out character that the sport so terribly needs.

His “Grease” video, the never-ending bike antics, his euphoric victory at the 2016 Ronde van Vlaanderen, and his growing palmares only serve to endorse the argument that Sagan is the peloton’s biggest star. And he just opened his official website and online store.

Sagan indeed has the potential to be cycling’s true breakout star. Historically, most of cycling’s big stars come out of the GC ranks. Yet many of today’s grand tour winners don’t pack the natural charisma to reach the larger public. With Alberto Contador confirming he will retire after the Vuelta a España and Chris Froome (Sky) remaining discreetly out of the limelight, Sagan is just what cycling needs.

What’s next for Sagan? In the short term, Bora-Hansgrohe officials confirmed he won’t be racing the Vuelta ahead of a return to the worlds in Norway in late September. After this week, he’ll be racing in the Canadian WorldTour events and will train ahead of an attempt at a third-straight world title.

“It would be nice to win a third rainbow jersey,” said Bora-Hansgrohe sport director Patxi Vila. “If you look to the [course] profiles, it is the one that fits him best.”

No man has ever won three consecutive elite world road championship titles. Only four have won three rainbow jerseys in their careers: Italian Alfredo Binda, Spain’s Oscar Freire, and Belgians Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Steenbergen. Sagan wants to join that club — and perhaps create a club of his own.

And for the long-term? First off, Sagan wants to win more classics. This year, he was stymied in the spring classics despite being in the hunt at every race he started. At some point, Sagan might target races such as Giro di Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège to try to win all five of cycling’s monuments, but first he needs to win Milano-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, and have a few more runs at the Ronde.

Much like Contador in his prime, Sagan instantly changes any race he’s in. He always races to win, even when it seems unlikely. Only Europe’s highest mountains can slow Sagan’s march.

For the future, simply letting Sagan be Sagan is the best thing that could happen to professional cycling.

His switch to Bora-Hansgrohe has proven prescient. The team is built around Sagan, and it supports him completely as he embraces the role as team captain.

At Poland, Sagan would take a few minutes each morning to attend to his fans, who lined up like they were waiting to buy tickets to a rock concert. You’d be surprised how many big cycling stars see fans as little more than a nuisance that get in the way (not many, but a few). Sagan relishes the vibe.

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Those moments seem genuine, and you see him do it throughout the year. At the Santos Tour Down Under in January, a kid stopped in awe as he saw Sagan lining up to sign in. Sagan laughed, shook his hand, and posed for a picture.

Unburdened by the scandals of cycling’s past but blessed with the gifts of cycling’s greats, Sagan has made racing fun again.

What’s going to happen for the rest of the week at the BinckBank Tour? Who knows. With Sagan in the field, we know it will be something wholly unpredictable and thrilling.