‘Sphinx’ Sagan under pressure to deliver big win at Flanders

The 25-year-old is searching for a victory in one of cycling's monuments, a list of five one-day classics

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Oleg Tinkov doesn’t settle for anything less than success; just ask Bjarne Riis, who was shown the door last week.

Sunday is crunch time for Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), who will be under huge pressure from the media and his team owner to live up to his superstar salary and deliver victory at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Anything less will be viewed as a disappointment.

Yet coming into the 2015 classics, it’s been hard to read Sagan.

After a tepid run across the opening northern classics, Sagan will enter Sunday’s monumental bash across the bergs of Flanders as a favorite with something to prove. Unlike most of the other protagonists, Sagan and Tinkoff did not hold a pre-Flanders press conference. Instead, they released a few comments via press releases. Otherwise, it’s hard to gauge the mood inside the team bus.

“We really believe in Sagan,” said sport director Tristan Hoffman in the release. “I know he has the shape, we’ve seen that, and it has increased steadily over the last weeks. He has lacked a bit of good fortune in some random situations during the last races. I’ve talked to the boys, and they’re all ready to support him fully.”

Bad luck is one way to spin it. After riding into the winning move at E3 Harelbeke, Sagan was uncharacteristically popped, and lost the wheel when eventual winner Geraint Thomas (Sky) turned the screws with a race-winning attack in the closing kilometers. That was a situation in which Sagan almost always comes out on top, and when he was unable to follow, red flags were popping up everywhere.

The 25-year-old was spotted taking a gel late in the race, but he said before the start of Gent-Wevelgem that he did not suffer a bonk late in E3. And during a wind-marred Gent-Wevelgem, he was caught in a big chase group that eventually lost the fight in horrid conditions, allowing Luca Paolini (Katusha), who bridged across to the winning move from the Sagan bunch at the decisive moment of the race, to take the flowers.

Although Sagan is also slated to race Paris-Roubaix and Amstel Gold Race, Sunday’s Ronde is the race that suits him best, and the race he’s seemed destined to win when he burst onto the scene four years ago.

The Slovakian has raced in 14 major monuments, finishing second in Milano-Sanremo and Flanders in his big 2013 campaign. Last year, he won E3, was third at Gent-Wevelgem, rode into the winning breakaway at Roubaix, but missed the winning moves in Flanders.

This year, with much-heightened expectations following his high-profile move to Tinkoff, he seems a touch off previous form. His rivals shout him out as a favorite for Sunday, but there are others who clearly look to be on better form.

With eternal favorites Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) out, it’s a wide-open door for the likes of Sagan.

Oddly enough, Sagan didn’t even bother speaking to his own team for the pre-Flanders press release, so it’s impossible to measure his temperament and motivation.

Here’s what Hoffman had to say about team tactics:

“We are ready to work together and take responsibility like we did in E3 Harelbeke,” Hoffman said. “And when it all comes down, if you sit at the front, you’ll be less exposed to crashes than if your team is scattered all over the peloton on the narrow roads.”

Everyone agrees Sagan has the class to win, but does he have the desire, tactical guile, and professionalism to pull it off? That will be answered Sunday.

An American in France

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