Peter Sagan believes he is the strongest rider in the peloton following a season in which the young Slovak embellished his already burgeoning reputation with a towering Tour de France debut to take the green jersey at the first attempt.
That wasn’t the only points jersey the 22-year-old won in 2012 – he came away from the Tours of Oman and California and the Tour de Suisse with similar prizes, on the way notching up a season total of 16 victories, bettered only by Lotto-Belisol sprinter André Greipel, with 19.
Sagan, who has three years left of his contract with Cannondale – former sponsor Liquigas has ended its involvement with the team – told Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport in an interview published in yesterday's print edition that his big objective for 2013 is to gain his first victory in a Classic, and Milan-San Remo is the race where he hopes to do that.
In line with Sagan’s natural confidence – some might call it cockiness – he gives no more reason than the fact it’s the one that comes first on the calendar.
In March this year, Sagan led the bunch home as it unsuccessfully tried to chase down the trio of riders who had got away on the Poggio – his own team mate Vincenzo Nibali, RadioShack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara, and the man who outfoxed them both to win the sprint, GreenEdge’s Simon Gerrans.
Just eight riders were in that group that crossed the line two seconds behind the front three, and while those included three-time winner Oscar Freire as well as another past victor, Filippo Pozzato, few would have bet against Sagan prevailing had they swept up the leaders.
Milan-Sanremo isn’t the race he would like to win the most, however. “The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are the races of my dreams,” he confirmed, topped only by the World Championship, although he has put any ambitions of the rainbow jersey on hold for the time being. “The course in Florence [next year’s host city] is too tough for me,” he explained.
Asked where he thought he could improve his riding to become a truly world class rider, Sagan replied: “Let’s say that I have to grow in general, that I have to become stronger on all kinds of course. It’s easy to say that I need to improve in the ascent, that’s normal, but I also have to be better in the sprint.
“I’ve been a pro for three years and I’ve been doing more or less the same things. They’re years in which I’ve improved, so I don’t want to change anything too much.”
The departure of Nibali from Cannondale means that Sagan will be likely to head to Milan-Sanremo as the team’s leader, but he feels that besides Ivan Basso, who he believes will be strong in stage races in the coming season, there is another rider who can fill the place of the Astana-bound rider – the 21-year-old Italian, Moreno Moser. “I’m convinced that he will become our new Nibali,” he said.
Sagan, who has just returned from a holiday in Australia accompanied by his brother Jurai, who also rides for Cannondale, and a friend from Slovakia, has recently moved back from the Veneto in north east Italy to his home town of Zilina.
Among the reasons for the move, he cites the rather surprising one that global climate change means the weather there is now more favourable for training than it was before.
There’s little doubting Sagan’s belief in his own abilities – asked to name the strongest rider in the peloton, his response was simply “me” – but he was unable to single out one single main rival.
“I don’t know, it depends. I’m a rider suited to different kinds of finish, so each time a different adversary is revealed. But I can beat them all.”
Two of his chief opponents next year, however, will come from the ranks of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, with Tom Boonen – who Sagan will face early in the season in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, and this year won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – and of course Mark Cavendish.
The Belgian squad even tried to prise the Slovak away from Cannondale, although having three riders with such hunger for success in a single squad, and targeting many of the same races, might well have led to issues within the team.
Five years Cavendish’s junior, Sagan’s rise has been even more meteoric than that of the Manxman, although as sometimes happens in cycling, their programmes and priorities mean that outright head to head battles in the biggest races, and therefore the development of a fully-fledged rivalry, have to date been few and far between.
Cavendish, who had won the Vuelta points classification in 2010, pulled out of the 2011 edition early due to illness. Sagan would go on to win three stages in his maiden Grand Tour. In Milan-Sanremo last March, Cavendish started as clear favourite, but inexplicably fell out of contention on the climb of Le Manie.
In the Tour, his defence of the green jersey took second place within Team Sky to Bradley Wiggins’ assault on the maillot jaune, the quid pro quo being the support promised for the Olympic Road Race. Cavendish took three stages, as did Sagan, but the Manxman’s hopes of retaining the points classification had evaporated long before Paris as the Slovak succeeded him on the podium.
Following his move to Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Cavendish will have no such distractions in next year’s Tour, and 2013 could be the year that one of cycling’s great rivalries is ignited in earnest.