What did we learn about the 2018 version of Peter Sagan from his victory?
Fred Dreier @freddreier: Sagan can still outsmart heavy sprinters when he needs to. On paper, Sagan lacks the gallop of Elia Viviani or Arnaud Démare, and he still beat them by jumping early.
Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: That he travels light — he didn’t bring any of the baggage from Friday’s E3 Harelbeke disappointment to Gent. He didn’t try too hard to force the race in the final kilometers when a sprint looked certain and instead trusted his form and talents to take the win.
Dane Cash @danecash: We learned that he is sprinting well — but I don’t think it’s safe to draw too many more conclusions than that. As Sagan himself told us after Gent-Wevelgem, it was not an especially hard edition of the race (relative to years past). As fantastic as the world champ looked in the final 300 meters, it’s not as if he blew his rivals away on the bergs, and that’s what will really count next weekend at De Ronde.
Andrew Hood @eurohoody: That his form is building, that he knows how to expertly read a sprint, that he kills it in reduced bunch sprints after 250km+, and that — win or lose — Sagan continues to be the most charismatic rider in the peloton
Why did this race end in a bunch sprint?
Fred: The breakaway survived until so late in the race, that the dynamics in the group forced teams like Quick-Step and BMC to chase, rather than play tactics on the Baneberg and Kemmelberg.
Spencer: Having multiple Quick-Step riders in the final selection led to a blistering pace, which seemed to prevent anyone from making a break. Greg Van Avermaet tried a move at one point, but he never saw daylight.
Dane: Quick-Step’s presence in the group, combined with the balmy — for Flanders — conditions made it too much for an ask for the pure cobbled specialists like Sep Vanmarcke to find any space.
Andy: Quick-Step. The Belgian outfit stifled any real aggression throughout the race, and when BMC Racing tried to ramp it up on the ‘ploegstreets’ to split the bunch, Quick-Step protected Viviani and got him over the Kemmelberg in ideal position to challenge for the victory.
It’s year two of the Ploegstreets. What’s your impression of the dirt roads?
Fred: I love the dirt roads. They compress the peloton and make everyone fight for positioning. They also present one more opportunity for a marquee rider to lose out, so everyone must be attentive.
Spencer: The final section of dirt looked a bit hairy, and we did see a rider or two stop with a flat tire. However, it didn’t have a major impact on the final selection. Perhaps that group of 23 would have been a bit larger if some of the guys hadn’t been pinched off the back of the narrow dirt road. But those riders wouldn’t have made the podium anyway in that final sprint.
Dane: They really didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the action, but I do think nastier weather could have changed that. The jury is still out for me on whether they can shake up this race.
Andy: They add an extra flair to the race. With the Kemmelberg descent now paved over (or at least they’re going down a paved-over section), the race was looking for an added innovation. I’d like to see more of them. There are only a few short kilometers, and if there were more, they would have more impact.
What should Elia Viviani have done differently in that sprint?
Fred: He chose the wrong side of Vanmarcke. One day Sep veers right, one day he veers left. It’s impossible to predict, and Viviani chose the wrong side.
Spencer: When he started his sprint, he picked the wrong side of his lead-out man Zdenek Stybar. By sneaking up the barriers on the right, he had to contend with a fading Vanmarcke, and he needed to rely on Démare to bring him out of traffic. If he’d picked the left side and followed Matteo Trentin when he jumped, he would have been able to unleash his final acceleration earlier. Based on how he closed on Sagan in the final 50 meters (and how much he cried after the finish), it seems clear that Viviani had the sprint to win it.
Dane: Staying close to Sagan on the run-in to the final few hundred meters probably would have helped, but that’s kind of a no-brainer in hindsight. The way it played out, Viviani had to dodge Vanmarcke before opening his kick, but sometimes that’s just the way sprints work out. Maybe on another day, Vanmarcke fades in Sagan’s direction.
Andy: Quick-Step rode the perfect race until the final kilometer. Vanmarcke’s solo flier with 800m to go messed up any hope of Stybar giving Viviani a cleaner lead-out. The action gravitated toward the right side of the road, and Viviani barely cleared the barriers and couldn’t open up his sprint until Sagan already had open asphalt on the left. Viviani’s decision to follow Demare’s wheel was the right one, it’s just that there too many bodies on the right side of the road for Viviani to have a clear shot to the line.
Patrick Lefevere has said that the absence of Tom Boonen opens the door for everyone at Quick-Step to win. Is this the best strategy?
Fred: For now it is the right move since Quick-Step has contenders to win any race. For the long-term survival of his team, I think Lefevere should keep an eye out for Belgium’s next crossover star.
Spencer: It’s easy to cheer his new approach when they go 1-2 at E3, so is it fair to critique Quick-Step for coming up short at Gent-Wevelgem when they had an obvious numbers advantage? It’s tough to say. However, a strong, egalitarian team only gets you so far in a bare-knuckle brawl like Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. If it were my team, I’d trade three Terpstras for one Sagan.
Dane: I don’t see it as an either/or. Terpstra is a legit cobbled classics star with as many monuments to his name as the man in the rainbow stripes. Gilbert’s career classics resume is practically unparalleled among active racers. Stybar and Lampaert are plenty capable of winning if the stars align, Viviani has been one of the most successful sprinters of the early season, and Gaviria should be in the mix here sooner or later. They have at least one rider for every single scenario and that’s worked out quite well so far. Indeed, it’s been working a heck of a lot better than things were going for the team in the last several years of Boonen’s career. He’s a legend, but his most recent monument victory is a whopping six years in the past now. Frankly, I think Quick-Step is much stronger now than they were in Tommeke’s final few seasons as a pro.
Andy: If you don’t have star power, you go for team power. Boonen was a once-in-a-generation rider and Lefevere saw Boonen’s sell-by date a few years going already, so the team was doing its best to rebuild the team. The arrival of Gilbert in 2017 was a masterful stroke and helped ease the way into the post-Boonen era. And let the bidding war begin for Wout Van Aert. He looks to be Belgium’s next big thing.