Commentary: What if Sagan hadn’t flatted (twice) in Roubaix?

Let’s indulge in a little revisionist history to construct the Paris-Roubaix that fans were dreaming of in 2017.

Cycling history is peppered with ‘what if’ moments. What if that French fan didn’t punch Eddy Merckx on the Puy de Dome? What if customs officers never pulled over Willy Voet in his Festina team car? What if Cadel Evans didn’t suffer a puncture at the worst moment of the 2009 Vuelta a España? We are left contemplating alternative scenarios to how races played out.

This past season gave us a handful of new what-if moments to mull over. Today, we’ll take a deeper dive into Paris-Roubaix.

As you may recall, we cycling fans were salivating over a possible slugfest between world champion Peter Sagan and Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet along the Roubaix cobblestones. Coming into the race weekend, Van Avermaet had bested Sagan throughout the classics season, beating him at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem. Sagan needed a result, and with his crash at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix presented his final opportunity to win a major classic in 2017.

The stage was set for a battle, and then — CRAP! — Sagan flatted with 77km to go. He chased back to the group. Hope was not lost! And then we collectively groaned as he flatted again with 30km to go. That final puncture all but knocked him out of the finale, which Van Avermaet took in a sprint in the Roubaix velodrome.

So now for the what-if conundrum: What if Sagan escaped without a flat? Let’s indulge in a little revisionist history to construct the Roubaix battle that we wanted.

Flat tire #1: The long shot

Greg Van Avermaet out-foxed a group that included Peter Sagan in Gent-Wevelgem 2017. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media |

Had Sagan escaped that first flat tire, what would have happened? Let’s start the what-if game. Remember, he is on the attack with 80km to go when the Roubaix gods smite his tubular. And his breakaway companions are no slouches: Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Daniel Oss (BMC), and Sagan’s teammate Maciej Bodnar.

The move is a long shot, both in terms of distance to race and the composition of the group. On one hand, Stuyven and Oss are good riders to have along. With Van Avermaet in the group behind, BMC is not inclined to immediately chase, instead leaving that to Quick-Step and the other teams that missed the move. Stuyven is similarly advantaged with teammate and former Roubaix champ John Degenkolb watching the peloton behind. But Bodnar’s presence is bad for the breakaway’s chances of success. Everyone knows it’s a bad idea to let the world champion get away with a teammate to aid the cause. To make matters worse, Quick-Step is not in the break. It is Tom Boonen’s farewell race, so at some point, they chase full-gas.

Given the Quick-Step factor and the long distance from the finish, I’d give this break’s chance of survival about 25 percent. Sagan, Bodnar, and Stuyven take monumental pulls to keep the gap going, and at some point, Oss becomes a passenger. In a best-case scenario, the four men survive until the Templeuve. After they are caught by a small peloton, there is a flurry of attacks. Sagan is able to stay with the group after the catch, but just barely. A small group enters the Roubaix velodrome, and the world champion is simply too tired from his huge effort. Van Avermaet finishes him off.

We fans would have gotten our Sagan vs. Van Avermaet showdown, but in this scenario, Sagan would be lucky to finish on the podium. In fact, that first flat tire might be a blessing in disguise.

Flat tire #2: The last straw

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Van Avermaet out-sprinted Sagan at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Unlike the first flat, Sagan’s second puncture was exceptionally costly. If you remember, Sagan provoked the winning breakaway, bringing Van Avermaet, Sebastian Langeveld (Cannondale-Drapac), Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step), Gianni Moscon (Sky), and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal). After he flatted, Van Avermaet handily took the sprint ahead of Stybar.

That was a thriller. Now, back to the what-if game: What if Sagan had made that group with no problems?

With 30km the break is gone. Sagan’s presence in the group alongside Van Avermaet means the breakaway is bound to succeed. Quick Step has representation with Stybar, and the other major favorites are isolated and unable to claw their way back.

The group enters the Carrefour de l’Arbe and splits. Sagan is able to follow Van Avermaet into the front group alongside Stybar and Langeveld.

With Sagan’s added firepower, the group builds a bigger advantage on the chasers. With the added time, the men are able to take turns attacking into the final 15 kilometers, rather than ride in unison. The Roubaix finale turns into a repeat of 2016 when Boonen, Sep Vanmarcke, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mat Hayman traded haymakers.

Who has the legs to attack out of the (hypothetical) final four in Roubaix 2017? After his petulant — and unsuccessful — ride in Gent-Wevelgem two weeks earlier, Sagan plays it cool. He follows wheels. But so does Van Avermaet, a notoriously cagey rider. Stybar buries himself, but remember, the team’s plan was a grand farewell victory for Boonen. The Czech had spent too many matches earlier in the race. There is a brief lull in the pace after Stybar’s last-gasp attack and Langeveld goes all in. Sagan and Van Avermaet mark each other out and settle for an also-ran sprint. Later, Cannondale-Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters promises fans his team will focus exclusively on classics in 2018.

In another scenario, Van Avermaet and Sagan come into the velodrome together. Normally Sagan wins in a more conventional sprint. But this sprint comes after 257 kilometers of brutal cobblestones. Neither man has his usual turn of speed. So who has the advantage?

Van Avermaet’s win over Sagan in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the spring was a great example his confidence and caginess in the final meters. Throughout the 2017 campaign, in fact, Van Avermaet sprinted to victory with his head as much as with his legs. He never made the first move, instead letting his rivals lead out the sprint. In some occasions, he nearly rode to a standstill in order to provoke a rival. And Sagan? To his credit, he rode an incredibly patient sprint at Bergen world championships to claim his third rainbow jersey. Springtime Sagan, however, was jumpy. Just a month earlier, at Milano-Sanremo, Sagan lost to Michal Kwiatkowski when he led out the sprint. Which Sagan shows up in the Roubaix velodrome? It’s anybody’s guess. Maybe he somehow taps into a Zen state to win a cobblestone trophy.

Unfortunately, fans can only speculate about how this dream duel could have played out. We can speculate and we can wait, because Paris-Roubaix (April 8) is only 146 days away.