Peter Sagan’s 6th place on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders would have been a career-defining result for most riders. However, Sagan isn’t most riders and with every passing spring, the triple World Champion is letting chances to win coveted Classics and cement his legacy slip through his fingers.
While the Slovak has looked a bit off his best over the past few weeks, he still bagged an impressive 8th place at Strade Bianche, 6th at Milan-Sanremo, and a win at Gent-Wevelgem. Most importantly, he seemed to be floating up the steep bergs and breathing through his nose through the decisive moments of Flanders.
Following Greg Van Avermaet’s brutal attack on the Taaienberg with 39 kilometers to go, Sagan’s Bora team put their last remaining domestique, Daniel Oss, on the front to reel in a dangerous attack by Zdenek Stybar, Gianni Moscon, and Jürgen Roelandts. Once they attack was managed, Bora opted to Oss there to keep the pace high to deter attacks from the Quick-Step team, which still had four riders remaining in the group.
However, as soon as Oss was distanced on the Kruisberg 10 kilometers later, the situation quickly began to deteriorate for Sagan. He covered a promising move containing Michal Kwiatkowski, Vincenzo Nibali, and Stybar. This move soon faced a stalemate as each star was unwilling to work for the others, and they were quickly reeled in by the chasing group. In the ensuing lull, Nibali attacked while the favorites were caught literally starring at each other. Sagan calmly watches the Italian fly by, but in retrospect, he most likely let his train to victory leave the station.
As long as Sagan remained in the group, he was going to be forced to chase down every attack from Quick-Step team. But if he could have gotten up the road and capitalized on the break in pace, he would have been able to let the race come to him when Terpstra launched his winning move.
The main problem with this hypothetical scenario is that there is absolutely no way Terpstra would have worked with Sagan once they were up the road. Remember, Sagan and Terpstra have a sordid history when it comes to sharing the workload in a group. Terpstra proved at the 2017 Gent-Wevelgem that he isn’t afraid of tanking a race out of spite (finally proving that spite is indeed a valid reason).
This would have forced Sagan to either pull Terpstra into the final two climbs and attempt to dispatch him there or sit up to let the group reel them in. This would have forced him to respond to endless Quick-Step attacks until they inevitably caught him out.
Once Terpstra got away, Sagan’s group was never going to have the horsepower to reel the Dutchman in. Quick-Step was able to strategical roll through and slow down the bunch, and for most of the riders, a podium position at Flanders has the potential to add significant value to their career by way of bonus and additional zeros on future contracts.
To his credit, Sagan recognized this and surged clear at the top of the Paterberg with 13 kilometers remaining. Sagan hit the descent with 30 seconds to close on Terpstra. Peak Sagan could have closed down this gap without breaking a sweat. But, it soon became apparent that Sagan simply didn’t have the form that allowed him to hold off a chasing Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke in 2016.
For reference, check out Sagan’s metronomic, “on-form,” pedal stroke as he holds off the chasers on his way to winning the 2016 edition solo.
Compare that with his herky-jerky, never-seems-to-be-comfortable style on display during his attempted solo pursuit of Terpstra on that same run-in to the finish in 2018.
Racing slightly off his top-form, lacking serious team support, and facing a Quick-Step group with numbers, Sagan was up against steep odds no matter what we did at Flanders. The answer to what happened can likely be answered with his extremely high salary limiting the quality of his teammates, along with his suspect training schedule over the past few months.