[pullquote]The fans lining the cobblestones yelled almost in unison: “Sagan à l’attaque!”[/pullquote]
Along an ancient farm road, at a touch more than 50 kilometers to go in cycling’s most hellish race, the rainbow blur of the world champion’s jersey sped past. In an instant, Peter Sagan launched the winning attack at this year’s Paris-Roubaix. His impressive move, which combined brains and brawn, single-handedly broke the stranglehold that Belgian super-team Quick-Step Floors had held over the cobblestones of Belgium and northern France.
For the first time in the spring classics, Sagan raced like a three-time world champion. Free and unencumbered by rivals, Sagan was simply Sagan; he uncorked an audacious and daring move far from the finish, and he did it alone. An hour after his impressive move, Sagan roared into the Roubaix velodrome, becoming the first world champion to win Paris-Roubaix since Bernard Hinault in 1981.
Sagan’s perfectly timed attack instantly changed the narrative of the 2018 northern classics, and to his frustrating personal history at Paris-Roubaix. It was a fitting end to a thrilling yet frustrating cobblestone campaign for anyone not wearing a Quick-Step jersey.
The 2018 northern cobblestoned classics saw a historic clash between the peloton’s best classics team and its best rider. Quick-Step was back at its powerhouse best, bringing a ferocious four-pronged attack. The only rider who had the legs and firmness of character to resist was the inimitable Sagan, the peloton’s only true superstar. Each combatant mastered the brutal pavé and explosive bergs with trademark panache. Quick-Step steamrolled and Sagan improvised; both styles were a marvel to watch.
Between them, they divvied up the prizes across the cobbled classics. Quick-Step out-gunned its rivals at every turn, controlling the races from Harelbeke to Flanders to Scheldeprijs. It finally took the unpredictable force of one rider to crack the Quick-Step code in the most hellish of all races, Paris-Roubaix.
Quick-Step’s classics DNA
A few days before the Tour of Flanders, Quick-Step, a Belgian manufacturer of laminate flooring, invited luminaries to celebrate the company’s 20-year cycling sponsorship. Oscar Freire, Mark Cavendish, Andrea Tafi, Johan Museeuw, and Peter Van Petegem attended the party, which also honored longtime team boss Patrick Lefevere.
Some WorldTour teams field classics squads; Lefevere’s team is built almost exclusively for the stones of Flanders and northern France. Since 1993, Lefevere has won 11 editions of Flanders.
“The classics are part of the DNA of this team,” Lefevere said proudly. “From the mechanics and soigneurs to the managers and riders, everyone lives for these races.”
Lefevere was flying high this spring seeing his Quick-Step troupe back at its best. It was sweet revenge for the 63-year-old, whose team nearly folded last summer after franchise rider Tom Boonen retired.
[pullquote attrib=”Yves Lampaert”]“Tom’s [Boonen] departure may have freed us. Tom took a lot of pressure, but when it came down to it, we always had to ride for him.[/pullquote]
It was a sublime Flanders week by any measure. Quick-Step outflanked, out-maneuvered, and out-muscled its rivals across the Belgian classics. Of the 10 Belgian races between Le Samyn on February 27 through Scheldeprijs on April 4, Quick-Step won nine. Only Sagan, who pipped Elia Viviani in a reduced bunch sprint at Gent-Wevelgem, handed Quick-Step its sole Belgian loss.
Quick-Step’s dominance was doubly sweet in the wake of Boonen’s retirement. The current roster of stars was free to shine brighter. The fact that the team’s sprinter, Fernando Gaviria, was sidelined due to injury meant Quick-Step had to attack to win.
“Tom’s departure may have freed us,” said Yves Lampaert, who won Dwars door Vlaanderen. “Tom took a lot of pressure, but when it came down to it, we always had to ride for him. The four of us are very strong this year. If you’re not at the front, you know your chance will come if the group comes back together. It’s a mystery for the other teams to beat us.”
That’s how Quick-Step built its classics strategy. The team leveraged its 25-year knowledge of the races to develop a game plan to control the pace. The underappreciated trio of Tim Declercq, Iljo Keisse, and Florian Sénéchel set a brutal pace to thin the front bunch before the decisive moments.
“Our job is to make it as hard as possible and reduce the front group,” Keisse said. “When there are 15 riders left, we want our four riders in there as well.”
Then, the team’s four-punch attackers took over. With Lampaert, Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, and Zdenek Stybar, Quick-Step shredded the peloton. When Terpstra or Lampaert attacked, Gilbert and Stybar marked the countermoves, before launching surges of their own. The aggression demoralized their rivals.
“Quick-Step is very strong right now. They have many riders who can win,” said an exasperated Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing. “It’s not so easy trying to cover every move. When one goes, another is waiting.”
Key to Quick-Step’s success was the team’s loyalty to a collective victory. The egos and personal ambitions that often unravel a team felt absent from Quick-Step’s 2018 squad.
“We want that one of us wins and it doesn’t matter who,” Stybar said. “That is the secret of our success. Our rivals don’t know who the real leader is, and we don’t know either. It just happens during the race.”
Of course, there was an explanation for the team’s attitude. Throughout his career, Lefevere has jettisoned riders who broke his code of fealty. The Belgian has famously delighted in the struggle of his former riders, such as Stijn Vandenbergh, Stijn Devolder, or Matteo Trentin, after they switched teams.
“You know if you are strong at Quick-Step, you have a very good chance of winning the race,” Gilbert said. “We all want to be the one who wins, but we also support the one who is leading. This team lives for the classics. There is no rivalry between us.”
The strongest man on the strongest team
Terpstra emerged as Quick-Step’s strongest rider this spring. Long rumored to be one of the most unpopular riders in the bunch, Terpstra is a loyal Quick-Step fixture who has paid his dues. After his big 2014 Roubaix win, Terpstra suffered injuries and anonymity in 2016 and 2017. After winning Le Samyn in February, he was reduced to tears. Terpstra followed that up with a commanding victory at E3 Harelbeke. After breaking away with teammate Lampaert, Terpstra soloed to victory ahead of a determined chase group.
[pullquote attrib=”Tom Steels”]”There are not too many riders in the bunch who can win a race like Niki does.”[/pullquote]
Terpstra’s next victory at the Tour of Flanders showcased Quick-Step’s team strength. Its three workhorses attacked early to thin the herd. Stybar surged over the leg-cracking Kruisberg, which left the diminished peloton gasping. When Vincenzo Nibali attacked on an innocuous stretch of asphalt, Terpstra saw his opening. Belgians Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) and Van Avermaet were out of position and craving a rest. Terpstra stomped on the pedals and up to Nibali. “Niki took that decision, and it was the right moment,” Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels said. “Stybie had gone, and everyone was on their limit, but if you have that one percent extra, that’s when it’s time to go. There are not too many riders in the bunch who can win a race like Niki does.”
Having lost reduced bunch sprints before, Terpstra blasted up the Oude Kwaremont and blew right through a three-man group that had pulled clear. Only Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), a Flanders rookie with a big motor, could stay close. Terpstra time trialed home to a second career monument win, while teammate and defending champion Gilbert was third.
Following another victory at Scheldeprijs, everyone inside the Quick-Step bus was confident Roubaix was theirs for the taking.
Sagan goes for broke
While everything was clicking for Quick-Step, the rest of the peloton was in tatters rolling into Roubaix. Despite a promising third place at Harelbeke, Van Avermaet was a shadow of the man who stampeded across the cobblestones in 2017. Others, such as Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Benoot looked strong but were simply out-matched by Quick-Step.
Yet the mood at the Bora-Hansgrohe bus hinted at signs of hope. Each morning, Blink 182 and Green Day blasted out of loudspeakers. The mood felt like a beach party, with Sagan holding court, and teammate Daniel Oss keeping the vibe positive.
“Sagan is more instinctive, more freestyle, and more feeling with spirit,” Oss said. “Sagan races with soul. Peter never feels the pressure. It washes off him.”
Now 28, Sagan has grown accustomed to carrying the pressure in the classics. Through his public statements and from those close to him, it is clear Sagan is being authentic when he says the “show for my fans is more important than the result.” Nevertheless, Sagan was well-prepared coming into the classics. He spent three weeks at altitude in Spain’s Sierra Nevada and skipped racing Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne to build his form.
[pullquote attrib=”Daniel Oss”]“Sagan races with soul. Peter never feels the pressure. It washes off him.”[/pullquote]
Yet in his early classics races, Sagan did not look like a giant-killer. He was sixth at both Milano-Sanremo and Flanders and was dropped entirely at E3 Harelbeke. Sagan accused the other riders of marking him instead of attacking Quick-Step. After those comments, Boonen said the world champ “should keep his mouth shut.”
Chatter within the press suggested Sagan might be a classics bust. Even his sprint win at Gent-Wevelgem, which left Elia Viviani in tears, didn’t silence the criticism.
Perhaps that chatter put more pressure on Sagan at Roubaix — and perhaps not. Sagan famously reveals very little of his feelings in his public comments. Either way, Roubaix had always presented a challenge to Sagan, whose best finish there was sixth. The bookies still backed him to win, but it seemed to be Quick-Step’s race to lose.
Yet as the race unfolded, Quick-Step found itself on the back foot early. Declercq crashed out while Sénéchel punctured coming out of the Arenberg forest. The rest of the team got split up in the chaos that ensued in the final 100 kilometers.
And then Quick-Step riders embarked on strange attacks. Gilbert went with nearly 100 kilometers to go, and Stybar went shortly thereafter. Both moves were reeled in by the sizable peloton. Were both men jealous of Terpstra? Did they hope to seize the lead and force their teammates to take the defensive? Perhaps.
After Stybar was absorbed, the race took on an every-man-for-himself feel. The early breakaway, featuring Sylvan Dillier, rode a minute up the road. Sagan’s antenna was up. Following an attack by Van Avermaet, which was covered by Terpstra, Sagan put in a surge at sector 12 at d’Auchy à Bersée. After a few minutes, he bridged to Dillier. With Sagan pulling on the cobbles and Dillier on the tarmac, the two held the chase group at bay. Sagan eventually outsprinted the Swiss champion to win in the Roubaix velodrome.
“Things went right for me today,” Sagan said after the race. “I never had a puncture or was involved in a crash like years before. It just happened. I am very happy.”
The comments, of course, did not tell the entire truth. Terpstra was clearly on strong form — he bolted from the chase to finish third. It took a rider of Sagan’s individual strength and panache — not to mention having Dillier’s assistance on the way to the velodrome — to crack the Quick-Step code.
“Sagan did a really good attack at the right moment,” Terpstra said. “Why did Sagan win? Because it was the winning move.”