For Peter Sagan, the prospect of winning his first Monument looms larger than it ever has. But if he is to turn prospect into reality, he must wave the red flag early, writes Anthony Tan.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

Eddy Merckx once said "I see myself in Sagan" yet when told of the compliment the Slovak dismissed the comparison: "I do not want to be the second Eddy Merckx. I want to be the first Peter Sagan."

Besides, Sagan, despite the umpteen plaudits thrown his way, will never win a Grand Tour, of which Merckx won eleven; despite his prolificacy in his first four years as a professional, he is yet to win a Monument, of which Merckx won nineteen; and notwithstanding his all-round ability, he is yet to win a world road championship, of which Merckx won three.

And besides, he's a Slovak and looks nothing like Merckx!

So Peter, I agree – you are the first Peter Sagan.

His friends and fans may call him 'Terminator', which is not analogous to a cannibal, but that was from his mountain-biking days and a consequence of his ability to destroy the steeds he rode as if they were made from glue and matchsticks. It had nothing to do with what he did to his competitors or winning races, even if he won his fair share, including the junior world MTB XC title in Vale di Sole.

As far as I'm concerned his reputation is overblown, an affliction which affects most sporting heroes, and which stymies true greatness. The Tom Boonen of 2007-09 was like that, where, during this period, he tested positive for cocaine on three occasions. He believed his God-like status; he thought himself invincible, if not immortal. He could have been another Pantani if not for the support he received, which Marco received not.

His partner Lore's recent miscarriage aside, Tom's life and career are back on the rails. We now see an older, smarter, and perhaps even stronger Boonen (we'll know for sure soon enough) who, along with Fabian Cancellara, will likely be Sagan's two most formidable rivals at the 98th Ronde van Vlaanderen.

For Sagan to reach the lofty heights of Boonen and Cancellara, who share no less than thirteen Monuments between them, he must not just win De Ronde, but win in style. With panache. Without the iconic climb of the Kapelmuur organisers egregiously eschewed two years ago (together with the Bosberg) therein presents a formidable problem, but one an athlete as preternaturally talented as he has a chance, albeit small, to overcome.

Dismantling the Omega Pharma-QuickStep phalanx of hard-men will be no mean feat. OPQS live and breath races like Flanders and Roubaix and this year appear indestructible; others, like Sagan's squadra Cannondale and Trek Factory Racing must train, train, train and adapt, for most (notable exceptions include Cancellara and Stijn Devolder) are not children of the cobbles.

Until the 230-kilometre mark or thereabouts 24-year-old Sagan is as strong as Boonen and Cancellara, at 33 years apiece nine his senior, but the finish line this Sunday is at 259km...

With Boonen out last year the gap from Cancellara to second-placed Sagan was 1'27. A crevasse. Should Fabian go again on the Paterberg, its crest 13km from Oudenaarde, or has the bottom-pinching Slovak tightened his own quadriceps enough in the twelve months since to stay with him?

Better zip but less endurance – the magical 250km mark is cycling's Great Wall – I think Sagan's best bet is to go early and catch Cancellara – and preferably, Boonen too – off-guard, as he did last Friday at the E3 Harelbeke. The infamous Koppenberg is 44km from the finish this year as opposed to 64km from Oudenaarde in 2013: 600 metres long, average 11.6 per cent, max 22 per cent... sounds perfect for Peter Le Puncheur. When announced last November, Het Nieuwsblad believed the repositioning so significant, the Koppenberg is "no longer a snack but marks the hour of truth".

He is a torero facing two bulls. The faena must come early; if he waits till the final two climbs of the Oude Kwaremont or Paterberg to wave the muleta the Terminator will become the executed, not the executioner.

The audacity of youth is with you, Peter – dare to be different.