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The Slovak counts three world titles — won from 2015 to 2017 — five green jerseys and eight stages from the Tour de France, plus one-day races like the 2016 Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem last week and twice before.
“He’s equal [in fitness to the last two seasons] I would say, perhaps even better this year,” coach and Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Patxi Vila said.
“But year by year, it’s harder for him to win. It’s harder to win with three world titles than with two, or with two than one.
“He’s building up a nice palmarès. He’s probably the rider of his generation, but that means everything is hard for him.”
Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) flew free at 26 kilometers to race and won the Tour of Flanders solo. His Quick-Step team marked and blocked behind. Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) attacked the Oude Kwaremont, and Sagan took his turn on the Paterberg, but gesturing and tactics increased with Terpstra’s advantage.
“Tactically, other teams played their cards better than we did,” Vila added. “His shape is good, but winning for Peter is more difficult than the other guys.”
Sagan’s star shined brightest ahead of the race, but within the Quick-Step constellation, little could be done. He and others paid.
Though they may not say it, stars like Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) may fear riding with Sagan into the Oudenaarde final because of his sprint strength. Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke, and Benoot would have hesitated before collaborating with Sagan to reel in Terpstra.
“Don’t ask why, but he’s the reference in the race,” Vila said. “That’s how it is. When he’s racing, he’s a reference point.”
Sagan stood at the center of attention in and out of the group. With his palmarès, odds-makers marked Sagan as the favorite ahead of Flanders. It is the same for the next cobbled monument, Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, too.
It leaves Bora-Hansgrohe and Sagan to analyze what went wrong and what to change before they start the cobbled march from Compiègne.
“It’s easy to say now, but the first thing you needed to do is try to catch Terpstra. If you give him 50 seconds, then it’s over,” Vila added.
“The mistake was that we went into the Kwaremont the last time with Terpstra too far. 50 seconds, that’s a lot. If it was just 20 less, 30 seconds, then you can see him and things probably would’ve been different. That was a mistake that we and the leading group made, but it was too late.
“It was a good race. Simply put, Quick-Step was what we expected. They have more [star] riders and they played their cards perfectly.
“Peter had a good race. He dropped everybody on the last climb, but Terpstra was too far ahead. He said, ‘What do I do?’ He waited for the bunch, but sixth place is not what we were expecting.”
The German WorldTour team built around Sagan’s arrival in 2017 worked for a small group finish and a sprint — just what the rivals aimed to avoid.
“If you look to Gent-Wevelgem and the way he sprinted … We shouldn’t be afraid of arriving in a group of five to six riders and a sprint. We rode well in Gent-Wevelgem like that, actually fantastically well, so it was up to the others to drop Peter.”
He faces his last big one-day appointment of the spring, Paris-Roubaix. For many, top 10s or top 5s would count, but not for Sagan. With his status, followers expect titles and cobbled trophies.
“No [it’s not a failure if he doesn’t win Flanders or Paris-Roubaix]. It’s a failure if you don’t do your race, if you don’t go deep and give 100%,” Vila said.
“[Quick-Step Floors] will do their race [in Paris-Roubaix] and we will try to solve the equation of one or two against three or four.”