No one man could beat World Champion Peter Sagan in the Tour of Flanders. However, four riders from a single team were able to easily crush him.
In short, Sagan lost to Quickstep’s Philippe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar and the victorious Niki Terpstra. They ganged up on the Slovakian and used strength in numbers to out-muscle individual talent.
Sagan, along with rival Greg van Avaermat (BMC Racing), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), were stuck in the chase group when Terpstra took off. They remained permanently stuck.
The Dutchman opened the gap, opened it further, kept it open all the way to the finish line. Sagan would finish a disinterested sixth, happy with his race, underwhelmed by his results. Van Avermaet was also happy with his race under the circumstances. No word on Vanmarcke who was probably disappointed in an optimistic way — what could we do against Quickstep?
In all honestly, once Terpstra got away with about 25 kilometers to go, the race felt effectively over. Every camera cut back and forth between Terpstra and the chase group told the same story. There was Terpstra going full-gas, his mouth frothing but his legs hammering away smooth and powerful versus a group of favorites spending more time watching each other as they made a pretense of chase. Only Sagan’s momentary rocket-shot off the front raised any heart rates in the audience.
In the post-mortem analysis, Sagan was at his philosophical best. “It’s hard to race in my position in the group,” Sagan said. “Also, if the other riders don’t wake up, it’s going to be like this.” We’re not going to claim the riders were asleep but we’ll certainly agree there was a lack of animation. They put their hopes not in the catch but in Terpstra’s legs somehow falling off.
In the end, Sagan, for all his gifts and aggression, could not pull back a 50 second gap to Terpstra all by himself. “They can play multiple cards. Quick-Step did a beautiful race. I just think that the other teams didn’t respect the situation and collaborate,” said Sagan.
According to Sagan’s coach and Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Patxi Vila, it’s not a question of missing form. “He’s equal [in fitness to the last two seasons] I would say, perhaps even better this year.” “But year by year, it’s harder for him to win. It’s harder to win with three world titles than with two, or with two than one.”
When it comes to Flanders and next weekend’s bookend, Paris-Roubaix, Sagan finds himself dealing with a simple yet complicated math problem: how to beat four riders from the Belgian juggernaut. “Quick-Step is a great team because they have many riders at a good level,” said Sagan. He knows that given that numerical superiority and an unawake peloton, “Quick-Step will go and win all the races.”
The Hell of the North awaits. In one corner, the world champion in the rainbow jersey; in the other corner, the gang in blue lycra. For Sagan’s coach Patxi Vila, there is no easy answer. “[Quick-Step Floors] will do their race [in Paris-Roubaix] and we will try to solve the equation of one or two against three or four.”