WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — Even Peter Sagan has his limits.

During Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem — which was won by Alexander Kristoff in a furious bunch sprint — Sagan reached his physical limit after enduring 200 kilometers of wind and cobblestones in a day-long breakaway. Sagan’s group of five riders was absorbed just 20km from the finish by a chase group of 18. When the peloton thundered to the line, Sagan’s famously springy legs were too tired to sprint.

He rolled across the line in 32nd place, 13 seconds behind.

“I didn’t have the legs at the finish line, and I was at the back of the group,” Sagan told reporters at the Bora-Hansgrohe team bus. “After 200k in the breakaway, I didn’t have the legs to sprint.”

As the defending champion, Sagan entered the 2019 race as a danger man; he owns three victories at the Belgian classic, more than any active rider. And Sagan showed his motivations early in the 251.5km race by riding near the front, despite the presence of gusting headwinds. The aggression placed Sagan in a favorable position. However, it also committed him to a day of toiling in the wind.

“It was not planned, it was because of the weather conditions and the wind,” Sagan said. “Nobody decided to be in the bunch. Just the guys who were there in the front were in the front, that’s why.”

Gent-Wevelgem is notorious for its narrow, twisting roads and strong winds, and the 2019 edition will go down as one of the windiest in recent memory. Strong gusts battered the peloton shortly after the riders left Deinze and headed toward the North Sea. After just 45km of racing the entire field had been blown into a series of ever-changing small groups.

Sagan’s team director, Jan Valach, said the winds caused chaos in the group. Up ahead, Bora-Hansgrohe rode to protect Sagan, and the team placed him in the front group.

“It was stressful and there were crashes and attacks and many splits in the crosswinds,” Valach said. “The plan was to stay at the front and ride with Peter and to keep him out of the wind.”

Sagan’s group of 18 included two teammates, Pascal Ackermann and Rüdiger Selig, as well as a lineup of heavy hitters: John Degenkolb, Mads Pedersen, and Jasper Stuyven (all Trek-Segafredo), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), and five riders from Jumbo-Visma, including Wout van Aert.

The group built a steady lead on the swelling chase group, which was driven ahead by Lotto-Soudal, Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and CCC Team. Some riders fell away as the group hit the early climbs on the course, but Sagan and his teammates drove the pace onward.

After the front group charged over the Kemmelberg, only four riders remained: Sagan, Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma), and Edward Teuns (Trek-Segafredo). The four were eventually joined by Luke Rowe (Sky).

With just four riders, the group looked destined to be absorbed by the peloton. But Sagan and his companions drove the pace onward as behind, Deceuninck-Quick-Step rode an even tempo on the front.

Sagan said he expected Deceuninck-Quick-Step riders to bridge up to the break.

“When we were with four after the first time up the Kemmelberg, I expected another group would come across to us, and that we would go to the finish,” Sagan said. “But Quick-Step chased and made sure that the big group came together to the finish line.”

Finally, the catch was made with just 19 kilometers to go. By that point, Sagan’s energy was spent.

There may be a silver lining in the disappointing result, Valach said. Whatever fears fans may have had about Sagan’s fitness were erased by the ride. After all, Sagan held off a charging peloton for nearly four hours.

“I think he shows that his level is very high,” Valach said.