Why I want Peter the Great to win Ronde van Vlaanderen
Say something... 'I'm Peter Sagan...'
Everybody knows who I am.
It is 11:49pm on Friday evening, we are but a day away from holy day. No, not Easter Sunday... we are but a day away from Ronde van Vlaanderen. Apologies for this remarkably obvious statement, but I am rooting for Peter Sagan to win De Ronde on Sunday. I shall shout it from the rooftops... I want Peter Sagan to win his second Ronde! Of course, it would be lovely were Mathieu van der Poel to retain his title, it would be lovely were Julian Alaphilippe to avenge his crash at last year's race. But, these wishes are all secondary, for this Sunday, I am firmly in the corner of Peter Sagan.
First, I must explain why I am writing this self-indulgent ramble at almost midnight on Good Friday. You see, I have just finished watching the behind the scenes film put together by Flanders Classics, which focuses on Ronde 100- the 100th edition of Ronde van Vlaanderen. Taking place in 2016, the race was another thriller, as the electrifying World Champion rode Sep Vanmarcke off his wheel on the Paterberg, before soloing to his first Monument success. Sitting in the car as he soaked up the win, Peter Sagan refused the goading from his soigneur; he would not come up with a hokey line for the camera, instead he answered in the most Peter Sagan way possible- "everybody know who I am". Yes we do Peter, yes we do.
© Flanders Classics
It feels remarkable that heading into Sunday's race, Sagan will not be near the top of the favourites list. Instead, he will sit amongst the middle of the pack, in arrears of the sport's current superstars- Julian Alaphilippe, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. Even more surprisingly, we have never really seen these four men face off against one another. Admittedly, last year's Ronde van Vlaanderen saw the aforementioned trio at the front of the race, sitting alone up the road inside the final 40km. However, one superstar of the 2010s was missing, Peter Sagan. On the day that Van der Poel and Van Aert would collide in a sprint for the ages, Sagan was plodding his way to a 132nd place finish in stage 15 of the Giro d'Italia. The day was one for Tao Geoghegan Hart, with the riders being faced with a tough ascent to Piancavallo. The Italian race was special for fans of Sagan, who were seeing the Slovakian ride the Corsa Rosa for the first time in his career. Faced with the questions looming over his racing future, having ceded the green jersey to Sam Bennett at the Tour de France, Sagan silenced his doubters once again with an emphatic victory on stage 10. It was a joy to behold, as Peter the Great soloed to redemption in Tortoreto.
"You're welcome." © Bettini Photo
The reason that it feels strange to see Sagan as an outsider, is due to his rapid fall from the status of the world's best rider. In 2018, Sagan rode as the World Champion, donning his rainbow bands for the third year in succession. He was the king. The following season, he was back in the colours of Slovakian national champion, not bad for some. He would win a stage at the Tour de France and take his seventh green jersey in Paris. Peter remained the king. But as the Slovakian took to the start line of last year's Giro d'Italia, he had been written off by many. Noticeably unable to shake off Sam Bennett in France and having come away from the Grand Boucle without a stage victory, some doubted whether the great man would ever return to his former glory. Add into the mix a bout with COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, he had once more been written off as a force in the spring Classics. With just a sole victory in 2020 and having admitted to losing his base fitness through his tough spell through illness, it appeared as though we would have to continue waiting to see Sagan go up against the golden trio. Instead, Peter raised many an eyebrow when he coasted his way to a fourth place at Milan-Sanremo, before bringing joy to the cycling world by opening his account for the season with a stage victory at Volta a Catalunya. Peter was back... somewhat.
Despite taking a victory in Catalunya and placing highly in Sanremo, there are still question marks over how Sagan will fare coming into De Ronde. The field at Catalunya was not particularly strong and the Slovakian was fairly absent throughout the stage race, especially on the first day, where he was tipped for success. It is a fact that Sagan lost a lot of base fitness from contracting COVID-19 and his race schedule was altered in response. Perhaps luckily given the team's difficulties with COVID-19, Bora-Hansgrohe decided to send Peter the Great to Catalunya, instead of warming up with the Belgian races ahead of Ronde van Vlaanderen. He was lacking miles in the legs and a fourth place at Milan-Sanremo masked his shortcomings entering this spring campaign.
Belgium stands to its feet and applauds as the World Champion wins the 100th edition of Ronde van Vlaanderen. © Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com
Now that the scene has been set, let me get to the point of why I am writing this piece after waltzing into the holy weekend with a lovely Flemish beer. I want Peter Sagan to win Ronde van Vlaanderen because he is the entertainer that has kept the sport alive throughout the 2010s, and despite all his successes, his fall from glory has been rather merciless and unforgiving. His response in the back of the car at Ronde 100 was Sagan at his finest, bedazzling the crowd with that wry, cheeky humour that comes across so charismatic in his unusual accent. He lifted the Flemish crowd to their feet with a superb solo victory, before pulling a wheelie as he crossed the line in front of Roger Decock and Eddy Merckx, two men who know a thing or two about winning De Ronde. Peter is at ease when charming us all on the bike, it is his playground. When Peter Sagan is at his finest on two wheels, it is his world and we are all living in it. As Fabian Cancellara desperately tried to bridge across to Sagan in 2016, Peter was calm and collected out front, even having the cheek to check out the bicycle of a passing fan. It brought a smile and a laugh to my face as I watched it just half an hour ago; seeing a fan attempting to ride alongside him, the World Champion responded by looking across to his left and eyeing up the bike that the fan rode, it was all fun and games for Sagan. No worries about Spartacus behind eh, Peter...
Throughout the past decade, Team Sky have been the bugbear of many fans- myself not included- for reducing races to a simple numbers game, grinding their way up Europe's mountains en route to delivering Chris Froome to Grand Tour success. In a world of numbers and conformity, Peter the Great brought exuberance and flair. Whether it was signing a fan's book as he rode along in the Tour, or pulling a wheelie as he climbed a mountain, Sagan was the people's man- he was the entertainer to the masses. For years, he was the world's best rider and bedazzled fans across the world. Peter Sagan was the king. As it came to the cobbles, Peter Sagan was in the elite group of favourites alongside Greg Van Avermaet, Fabian Cancellara and later, the likes of Mads Pedersen. However, as I have mentioned earlier, all of a sudden he is no longer a member of the elite favourites, instead finding himself alongside other so-called fading forces like Van Avermaet. Heading into Sunday, Sagan is now the underdog. We got a brief glimpse of Wout Van Aert vs Peter Sagan at the 2018 Ronde van Vlaanderen, where they finished in the top-10 behind winner, Niki Terpstra. But we are yet to see Van Aert vs Van der Poel vs Sagan vs Alaphilippe play out on the roads of Belgium, and it would make for a fascinating spectacle this weekend.
In the space of two years, Sagan has fallen from the sport's top echelon. Whilst he was once the king of the peloton, that crown has quickly slipped onto the heads of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. Are we seeing the great champion of our time fade away from the spotlight? Perhaps. But wouldn't it be lovely to see Peter the Great produce some more sparks at De Ronde, a race that he made his own in 2016.
Five years on from his race-winning move on the Paterberg, can Peter the Great roll back the years on Sunday and win his second Ronde van Vlaanderen? Fingers crossed. © Bettini Photo
Gino Bartali was the preeminent champion of his time, winning the 1938 Tour de France and seemingly destined for many more to come. However, he was soon dropped from the top echelon of the sport as the Second World War grabbed ahold of Europe. Despite occasional great results following the War, such as winning the 1948 Tour de France, his best years had arguably gone and the Bartaliani would cheer on their underdog to reclaim his former glories. His light would shine every so often, but he was no longer offered top favourite status at every race he attended.
Watching Peter Sagan in 2021 feels alike to the situation of the Bartaliani following the Second World War; our favourite is arguably in his fading years, but shows flashes of his former greatness. It feels as if Sagan has already been written off, as though his time has been and gone, despite him only being 31.
No longer is Peter the favourite for the cobbled Classics, instead we now root for the underdog. We root for the man who was the superstar that cycling needed throughout the past decade.
Whilst the times have changed and Van der Poel and Van Aert have taken his crown as cycling's current superstars, I am rooting for Peter to taste success at De Ronde once again.
His nonchalant confidence was a breath of fresh air for cycling throughout the past decade, lifting us to our feet as he unleashed magic across the continent- but cycling's preeminent star, he is no more. Peter the Great is now the underdog, and perhaps this is where he is most dangerous. Watch out for Sagan on Sunday, because he might very well raise us all to our feet once more, and wouldn't that be splendid? Allez Peter, we all know who you are, but please, remind us of your greatness.