Superb Sagan sends a message at Gent-Wevelgem

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Peter Sagan celebrates winning stage three of the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico (Image: La Gazzetta dello Sport)

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If you’ve been living under a moss-covered rock for the last two years, you may not have heard that Peter Sagan is rapidly becoming cycling’s next superstar.

For those of us who have seen more than a minute of bike racing, it’s almost old news how explosively talented this 23 year-old is, but just when you think he can’t possibly get any better, another outrageous, audacious, superlative-defying performance raises his brilliance to another level.

His victory at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday was a powerful riposte to arch-rival Fabian Cancellara’s own heroics to claim the E3 Harelbeke prize on Friday.

Cancellara had blown Friday’s race apart with a 35km solo attack, relegating Sagan to second place, a minute down.

It was a brilliant ride from Cancellara, crushing the souls of an elite chase group with a sustained production of almost coal-fired power outputs.

For most riders, second place in a minor classic behind a rampaging Spartacus would be a good day’s work. For Sagan, it was an insult that demanded an emphatic response – which he wasted no time in delivering at Gent-Wevelgem.

Sagan’s reply was to launch his own solo attack (albeit only 4km from the finish) to grab the win, while Cancellara watched on from his team bus, having failed to finish.

Considering Sagan is an incredible sprinter, and was likely to win anyway from a twelve-man breakaway group including a teammate to lead him out. A solo attack was completely unnecessary.

Unnecessary unless he wanted to make a point that anything Cancellara can do, Sagan can do better. In an act of quite stunning bravado, Sagan simply rode his companions off his wheel, and continued to extend the gap until the final kilometre.

That his victory celebration was a wheelie across the line could be interpreted as a middle finger raised directly at Cancellara, who has criticised Sagan’s victory salutes as over-the-top and disrespectful.

It’s not surprising that there’s been bad blood between the two, as they’ve built an intense rivalry this season in the absence of Tom Boonen from the sharp end of the early classics, and seem to have very different personalities.

The contest between the two will be fascinating through the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, after it probably cost one of them the win at Milan-San Remo (their cat and mouse game allowed Gerald Ciolek to swoop in the finale).

But we’re here to talk about Sagan.

Already this season he has won Gent-Wevelgem, two stages of Tirreno-Adriatico, two stages of the Tour of Oman, and the Gran Premio Città di Camaiore.

Throw in second places at Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke, and Strade Bianche, and you can see he’s been incredibly consistent.

Of course, his ability to win (or come close) from almost any race situation is what enables this consistency.

Sagan has won bunch sprints on the flat (beating Cavendish, Greipel and Goss in stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico).

He has won from long breakaways over steep climbs, shredding everyone but climbers like Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez (stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico). In this win he destroyed riders of the calibre of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome.

He has won uphill sprints; from long breakaways in groups; and in solo breakaways. He can attack on the hills and on the descents.

Short of the kind of epic mountain stages we only see in grand tours, there is almost no race that Sagan is not capable of winning.

At times his critics have suggested that he has lost races by being too talented, or too arrogant. Perhaps his belief that he can win from any situation has caused him to make tactical mistakes.

I think there is some truth to this criticism; at times he has tried to do too much and been beaten as a result.

However, to be fair to Sagan, no rider is immune from tactical errors, and he is racing against high quality opposition who will seize on any mistakes. He is inexperienced, but this will change quickly.

As a result of his versatility, he is now inevitably listed as one of the top favourites for nearly every classic he enters, and in stage races as well.

In 2012, Sagan was third in the Amstel Gold Race and fifth in the Tour of Flanders.

This year, with his form and confidence ever expanding, it would not be surprising to see him winning both. Another epic battle with Cancellara at Paris-Roubaix? Perhaps even a showdown with the master, Tom Boonen?

It’s an enticing prospect, whether you like his victory salute antics or not.

By the end of April, we may well be counting Sagan’s classics palmares on two fists.

He’s now a bona fide star, and still rising.

Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. An ex-runner, now a club grade bike racer, Tim tweets about sport at @megabicicleta.
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