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It’s one thing to get beaten straight up, it’s quite something else to screw the pooch.
Gent-Wevelgem’s post-race cool-down quickly turned into a blame game, and there was plenty of finger-pointing at the end of Sunday’s dramatic finale.
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Quick-Step was caught out, and called out, for being too clever by a clearly frustrated Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who was also left with a sour taste in his mouth. And a hard-charging group of sprinters also came away with crumbs as a late rally failed to catch the attackers in what was another reminder that, during the classics, there is no margin for error or for tactical games.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) was the only one smiling after initiating a surge at a decisive breaking point with 15km to go. With the peloton fractured into pieces, Van Avermaet and compatriot Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) took matters into their own hands. Quick-Step’s Niki Terpstra and Sagan (with Danish sensation Soren Kragh Andersen in tow) exchanged glances and then words, but neither chased, and in an instant, it was game-over. A half-hearted chase came up short, and a blame game ensued moments after Sagan dipped across the line in third.
“This is a very cheap game,” Sagan stewed to Sporza inside the press tent. “What could I do? I am not [Terpstra’s] teammate. Am I going to work so he can beat me in the sprint? I could decide today who could win.”
In Sagan’s world, that meant anyone but Terpstra. The world champion accused the former Paris-Roubaix winner of sitting on, but Terpstra explained that he had team orders to do just that. With Tom Boonen (later second in the bunch sprint) and Fernando Gaviria chasing less than a minute behind, what more could Sagan expect?
Boonen later broke it down for reporters outside the Quick-Step bus. For the Belgian superstar, with only three races left on his calendar before retiring at Paris-Roubaix in two weeks’ time, the fault lies firmly with Sagan.
“When you’re the strongest and the world champion, you have to react,” Boonen told Het Nieuwsblad. “If you’re Sagan, and you’re in that situation, you have to react … Niki [Terpstra] didn’t lose, Sagan is the one [who lost].”
By now, Sagan is used to racing with a target on his back. It happens nearly every race he starts. He’s the strongest and he’s the man to beat, so few dare take it straight to him, because most know that their only real option to win is to mark his wheel, hopefully hang on, and then try to pip him in a sprint. Sagan is clearly fed up, and risked losing Sunday to make a point. In fact, he did lose, but so did Quick-Step.
“It wasn’t for me to close the gap, and then they were gone,” Terpstra told Cycling Weekly. “Sagan is frustrated, and we both let the gap open.”
Terpstra seemed to shrug off the ensuing polemics, and insisted the team is looking strong for what really counts at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. On paper, Quick-Step once again has the strongest squad in the peloton. That strength in numbers can pay off handsomely, just as it did last week at Dwars door Vlaanderen, or with Terpstra attacking out of a group to win Roubaix that included two other Quick-Step teammates. But sometimes it can backfire, just as it did Sunday.
And the chasing group seemed to dawdle. It was hard to get a read on exactly what happened or why it seemed to take so long to organize a chase. The longer, monument-size distance of Gent-Wevelgem since it changed from its mid-week date (usually around 200km) to its Sunday spot certainly changes the dynamic of the race. It’s that final hour of racing that makes the monuments stand apart. A strong headwind and a lack of cooperation in the bunch foiled a chance for the sprinters.
Sagan doesn’t have the luxury of having sprinters coming up behind — teammate Sam Bennett is still a touch off the highest level in the hardest races — and instead must count on his brute strength to break open the race. Or, ideally, simply ride everyone off his wheel, like he did last year at Flanders.
With “only” Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne to add to his trophy case (with second at Milano-Sanremo and third at Gent-Wevelgem) so far this spring, Sagan is spoiling for a fight. Another Flanders win would do much to salve his growing annoyance.
“If you are winning always, maybe you lose motivation,” Sagan said. “Now I am motivated to take some victories.”
It was Van Avermaet who had the last laugh. The versatile Olympic champion looks to be on the form of his life following another dominant performance. With Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem already in his belt (and second at Strade Bianche), Flanders awaits. It’s the race that Van Avermaet has been chasing his entire career. This could be his moment.
What’s sure is that come Sunday, no one will be playing games or holding back fire. The Ronde is too big a prize to sacrifice for a teammate, or to make a point.