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How to beat Sagan? Rival teams mull Flanders tactics

Rival teams tactics will have to be perfect to overcome an on-form Peter Sagan who is hamstrung by his modest Bora team.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — With a super Peter Sagan lining up to defend his Tour of Flanders title Sunday, teams are tweaking their tactics in order to manage and have a chance at victory.

World champion Sagan won the race last year with multiple attacks over the final 35 kilometers. His final on the Paterberg cobbled climb left him with a 13.2-kilometer solo ride to Oudenaarde. This year, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Slovak begins as the favorite ahead of Belgians Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).

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“Sagan is so explosive and if he gets a gap with 10 seconds, with a few others, it’s really hard to catch them,” Sky sports director Servais Knaven told VeloNews. “That’s why teams try to move beforehand and make it hard.”

Knaven said that the breaking move could happen on the second time up the Kwaremont with 54.6 kilometers to race.

“Last year and this year, they went early in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. I don’t know what will happen in Flanders; normally it happens on the final two climbs of Kwaremont and Paterberg [the final 17 kilometers], but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens on the second time up the Kwaremont climb and it leaves already the strong riders going full-gas and behind everyone is left looking at each other. It’s going to be interesting.”

Many will look to Sagan, who could be forced to work early since his German Bora team is not one of the strongest. Sagan will be forced to decide to ride or wait.

In the classics, starting with last season, teams appear to be attacking earlier. Last year’s Paris-Roubaix kicked off with 110 kilometers to go. In E3 Harelbeke this year, the winning move went clear with 70 kilometers left.

“Before, it always seems like Quick-Step would try to control the race and nobody got away, but now Quick-Step is going on the attack and you see other big guys follow,” Knaven added. “That’s a big change. The reason could be that Sagan is super-strong and they want to make the race is hard as possible. And you see that it works.”

Quick-Step counts five big guns heading into Sunday’s Flanders: three-time winner Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Matteo Trentin and Philippe Gilbert.

“It’s not so hard, you need to drop him,” Quick-Step sports director Wilfried Peeters said with a smile. “Or you need to follow, you saw in Gent-Wevelgem that the two strongest [Sagan and Van Avermaet] were away on the Kemmelberg. If you wait to the Kwaremont and Paterberg, it’s hard to drop those guys. You need to find a good way. What’s the way? I don’t know.”

The way could be for Quick-Step to start attacking with 55 kilometers to race with Boonen, Terpstra, and Trentin. BMC Racing could send Daniel Oss along too. Sagan would have to gamble: assume it is not the winning move and wait, or join.

“The danger is team Quick-Step, which has five men who can all lead the team,” Bora sports director Patxi Vila told Het Nieuwsblad newspaper. “And Van Avermaet and his team, which rides well.”

“We are going to race the way we did in the past races, attractive, offensive, and then we’ll see who’s left in the group,” Terpstra explained. “If we have more riders in the front then that’s perfect.”

Boonen won the race already in 2005, 2006, and 2012. If he wins again, he would set the record with four titles. With so many years of experience, he should be able to help the team plan on how to deal with the more explosive Sagan.

“In all the years I’ve been a pro, I’ve never watched anyone else in the race, we make up our own plan,” Boonen said. “I never plan the race following anyone else or trying to put someone against another rider, I don’t see the point of it. I don’t think we have to make a plan to ride against these two riders, but a plan to win the race.”