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The three-time world champion was in the mix Sunday until the final explosive laps, and rolled across the finish line in Leuven in 26th in a group at 6:27 behind winner Julian Alaphilippe.
“I didn’t have the legs to win,” Sagan told Slovakian media. “There was no cooperation in our group. We would accelerate, then slow down, and that always means the ends of chances.”
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Sagan came into the Flanders worlds after a tumultuous 18 months, yet showed signs of optimism after winning just his fourth overall GC title in his career when he won his hometown stage race at the Tour of Slovakia this month without winning a stage.
A different kind of worlds for Sagan
Following injuries, crashes, and a bout of COVID-19, Sagan was somewhat surprisingly not on the top-tier list of favorites despite racing on favored terrain on a classics-style courses that typically would fit him like a glove.
Slovakia started with four riders, with Sagan and his brother, Juraj, along with Erik Baška and Patrik Tybor. Sagan was the only finisher on the team.
Ever the showman, Sagan popped a wheelie to the delight of tens of thousands of fans in the main square at sign-in in Antwerp.
PETER SAGAN DID A WHEELIE
HE DID A – W H E E L I E –
— (@SwaganP) September 26, 2021
There were thousands of Sagan fans among the masses lining the city loop in Leuven. Sagan fans waved flags and held signs supporting the national hero. There was even a “Sagan corner,” where nearly a dozen campers and hundreds of fans packed in for a Sagan-inspired party.
Out-gunned by pre-race favorites Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy, Sagan did what he could to follow the wheels.
“As expected, it was very fast and technical,” Sagan told Slovakian media. “It kept stopping and starting.”
The ever-popular Sagan raced conservatively and was astutely saving his legs for the final laps, and chose not to chase a decisive early break featuring Remco Evenepoel (Belgium) on the Flanders circuit.
Fate doomed in final two laps
Sagan was still among the select front group when a lethal flurry of attacks set the tone for the final battle for the medals.
The bunch fractured with less than two laps to go, and Sagan got caught out in a second chase group that sealed his fate. With a leading group featuring French, Dutch, Belgian and Danish riders, no one in the first chase group would attack.
Stuck in the next group back that also featured Belgian and Dutch riders, few had the legs, teammates, or ambition to try to bridge across to the lead chasing group that included Wout van Aert (Belgium) and Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands).
“It was necessary to drive to the front, and at that decisive moment, it didn’t work out for me,” Sagan said.
“I stayed in the second group and it didn’t go anywhere,” Sagan said. “We went for a while with a small gap, and we saw them in front of us, but every strong country had someone there, and no one could cooperate to make it happen.”
Sagan won an unprecedented three consecutive world titles on a trot from 2015 to 2017, and the wheels came off in his bid Sunday to become the first in elite men’s world championship history to win four.
Sagan, 32 in January, could have another favorable course waiting next year in Australia.
After that, details are sketchy about how worlds routes will look like in 2024 in Zurich or in 2025 in Rwanda, which is expected to be a climber’s course.
Time and opportunities could be running out for Sagan to create a one-member four-win club.
Now it could be Alaphilippe banging on the door.
On Sunday, he became the first French rider to win two rainbow jerseys in a row, and with the 2025 route expected to be a hilly one, the dynamic French rider could be the next to join the “three-win” club at worlds.
Elite male riders with three world titles:
Alfredo Binda (ITA) — 1927, 1930, 1932
Rik Van Steenberger (BEL) — 1949, 1956, 1957
Eddy Merckx (BEL) — 1967, 1971, 1974
Óscar Freire (SPA) — 1999, 2001, 2004
Peter Sagan (SVK) — 2015, 2016, 2017