Peter Sagan is the world’s best bike rider. The stripes on his jersey will tell you so, as would thousands of his fans. However, though he crowned 2015 with that stunning win in Richmond, last season was not without struggle; too many nearly moments, too many obstacles and too much bad luck. By contrast, 2016 was been packed with major victories and after a brilliant spell in Belgium (wins at Gent-Wevelgem and Ronde van Vlaanderen) our reigning World Champion has never looked back. The lumps found in the Richmond course have been replaced by the flattest of roads in Qatar, yet Sagan remains the narrow favourite at 9/2. The Slovakian can sprint with the best of them – just take a look any sprint from the Tour de France – and has a very realistic chance of defending his title.
Sagan contests – or at the very least animates – nearly every race he rides. He’s always a favourite in the spring classics and often initiates the early attacks. In Flanders this year he simply rode away from everybody else, whilst in Roubaix he spent much of the afternoon surging back towards the top ten after being caught up in a nasty crash. Last month he returned to the duo of Canadian World Tour races for the first time since 2013. He won one and placed runner-up in the other (to old adversary Greg Van Avermaet). Across an eclectic mix of races, an argument can be put forward for Sagan.
Enough hero worship now. The versatile Sagan faces a very specific challenge in Doha; reaching the finish line ahead of Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel. After his streak of Tour de France near-misses, many urged him to pursue methods of victory away from the big bunch sprints. They would ultimately be proved right (Sagan won in Cherbourg by outlasting the fastmen and out-sprinting the remainder) but make no mistake, when in the right shape, Sagan is as fast as anyone.
On Stage 4 of the Eneco Tour, a surging Sagan beat Doha favourite Greipel into second place. Behind the pair were Alexander Kristoff, Arnaud Demare and Dylan Groenewegen. He’s claimed major scalps all year round but there’s no doubting what swings a flat sprint in Sagan’s favour – a technical finish. Sagan has the speed to get within a wheel of his rivals but often uses a flash of his excellent bike handling to manoeuvre his way to first spot. In Doha things could be pretty straightforward and Sagan will need to find that final bike length through other means.
He might get it through the blustery 250km course. Sagan is super strong and has the least to worry about of all the leading contenders. With margins likely to be so close, Sagan may be confident a hard day in the saddle is all he needs to get home first. However, whilst the route may be a concern to World Championship newcomers, Cavendish and Greipel have done it all before in Copenhagen and can’t be dismissed so easily. Qatar is flat and easy; the heat poses far more of an issue then the race length or suspected winds.
In likelihood that Cavendish and Greipel are around at the end, Sagan faces yet another issue; leadout trains. He’s no stranger to sprinting alone – Daniele Bennati only sometimes present at Tinkoff to offer a hand – but the Slovakian three man squad pales in significance to anything brought by the leading nations. Sagan will almost certainly be left surfing the wheels; a minor hindrance rather than game-changing news.
The other option is to once again win alone. The Doha event has yet to see anything go exactly to plan and murmurings of a non-sprint have begun to surface. However, it seems highly unlikely Sagan would sacrifice his realistic sprint challenge with a last ditch attack. He’ll back his speed on Sunday.
You may think there’s one too many sprinters lined up this weekend for Sagan to be considered a true favourite but there’s no doubting his ability. The Slovakian is having the season of his life and will give you your money’s worth at 9/2. Alongside a couple of outside picks, backing Sagan to retain may prove too hard to refuse.