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Analysis: Sagan overcomes trappings of expectation

With the ability to nearly win at will, Slovak champion faces down the weight of his growing palmares for record ninth Amgen Tour win

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SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (VN) — He’s making it look easy again.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won his ninth career stage at the Amgen Tour of California on Tuesday, to no one’s surprise. Only the steepest of finishes or the most brutal, surreal attacks can soften his legs enough to take him out of contention in the world’s biggest races and, simply, the sprinters here in the Golden State are just not on his level. Hardly anyone is right now, aside from Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard).

It’s actually expected that Sagan wins races now — by fans, by riders, by the media. What makes the Slovak champion so unique is that he’s as consistent as he is young, as dependable to see the top step of the podium as he is to pop one-handed wheelies. At team camp in Los Angeles over the winter, Moreno Moser said it best: “With Peter, you are sure. You’re sure that you can win 15 races, no? It’s quite sure… With Peter, I’m sure that we will win a stage [at the Tour de France].”

Sagan, 23, acknowledged that the expectations to win are heavy. In an interview before this race began, he said that repeating his five-win romp across California was too tall an order.

“Last year I won five stages. But it was, I always say, a bit of luck. I don’t know. Maybe there wasn’t too many sprinters, like this year. … I don’t know. Last year I was very good, but it’s very hard doing the same things — the same victories. Maybe five victories is a little bit too much,” Sagan said. “And now I am here doing well, but also honing my condition before the Tour of France. I want to do well, and we will see in the race when I come on the front. But it’s too many climbs this year.”

Stages 1 and 2 eluded him, foiled by a breakaway on Sunday and the finishing climb Monday, but on Tuesday, Sagan took a sprint with clinical ability, a clear cut above his challengers.

His palmares at this point in his career are downright gaudy: the points classification at the Tour de France in 2012 in addition to three stage wins, three stages at the Vuelta a España, first at Ghent-Wevelgem, four top fives between Milano-Sanremo and Tour of Flanders, nine stage wins at the Amgen Tour of California, six at the Tour de Suisse.

“My results say I am here for the win,” he said. “I need to win, also for me, also for the people. The people want it when I win. Too many expectations? Yeah, it’s true, but I don’t think [about it when] they’re talking about me, other people,” he said. “If I’m thinking everyone is talking about me, [laughs] maybe I have too many confusions in my head. I want to look forward. And only doing well, just keeping the riding on the bike and have fun.”

Winning, of course, is fun. But can such a brilliant rider sustain the weight of being expected to win nearly every time he’s near a finish?

“He’s at a certain level where the expectations are for him to win. I mean he comes here and he wants to win, but … he knows there’s bigger goals coming up, and he’s already won a bunch before,” said Frankie Andreu, director of the 5-Hour Energy-Kenda squad and a former pro.

Winning in California is one thing — and it’s a difficult thing, traditionally, given the courses and conditions — but winning in France and Belgium, all year long?

“You have to match it, you know? Once you win the Tour, how do you match that? ‘Oh, Cadel Evans, failure the next year, he didn’t win again.’ Sagan, for sure. If he doesn’t win two stages or something, it’s going to be a failure,” Andreu said. “And it’s going to be hard to match. But a lot of times, those expectations, they come from the press … But he knows how cycling is. You lose 90 percent of the time. Maybe in Sagan’s case 20 percent of the time. But when you show up to the race, you want to win one.”

Garmin-Sharp boss Jonathan Vaughters said constant winning is untenable, expectation or not.

“I think cycling, especially sort of modern cycling, where it’s just gotten more and more and more competitive and the differences in riders are very small — it’s a sport where you’re never going to see absolute consistency. It’s so competitive,” he said. “And when you do — you see a guy like Sagan knock off 10 races early in the year — but to expect that year after year after year? That does put pressure on the rider, on the sponsors, and that can be counterproductive, as we’ve seen. Sometimes, you run along it. I don’t know — how many races did Sean Kelly win in his career? He’s a similar-type guy.”

Sean Kelly won 33 races alone in a tremendous 1984 season, and more than 185 total. While Sagan’s a long way from that, he gets closer, one by one. He’ll likely have another chance on Wednesday, as the Amgen Tour rolls from here to Santa Barbara.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.