ROUBAIX, France (VN) — What does joy look like for Peter Sagan? Sprinting to victory in the race he’s always dreamed of winning.
The Slovakian superstar silenced his critics Sunday with a stunning victory in cycling’s most grueling one-day race at Paris-Roubaix. After struggling to find his winning mojo throughout the spring monuments, Sagan uncorked a brutal attack with 50 kilometers to go to dust his rivals in arguably cycling’s hardest race.
“When I was younger it was always my dream to win Paris-Roubaix,” Sagan said. “If someone would ask me to change my world titles for Roubaix or Flanders, I would say no — that is something more. Now I have won all three [Flanders, Roubaix, and worlds]. I am very happy.”
The Bora-Hansgrohe captain followed the trend throughout these spring classics and attacked far from the finish line. It’s better to be at the front than chasing. Sagan linked up with breakaway rider Silvan Dillier (Ag2r La Mondiale) and then out-kicked him in the velodrome to win the most iconic one-day race in cycling.
Sagan is the first world champion to win Roubaix since Bernard Hinault. “The Hulk” and “the Badger” make good company.
“I am so happy with this victory,” Sagan said. “It just happened. Things went right for me today.”
This Roubaix didn’t come easy. No Roubaix ever does. And after the rocky spring that Sagan had, this victory carved on cobblestones tasted even better.
The three-time world champion avoided the punctures and crashes that derailed many of his previous Roubaix efforts. After dismissing the stubborn Dillier, Sagan let out a scream from deep within his soul. He is known for his unique finishing flourishes — remember Forest Gump or hula-dancing Sagan? — but his euphoria after out-kicking a brave Dillier came from somewhere deeper. [related title=”More on Paris-Roubaix” align=”left” tag=”Paris-Roubaix”]
For the sometimes sardonic Sagan, he almost sounded relieved.
“I had very good luck today,” Sagan said. “I never had a puncture or got involved in a crash like years before. It just happened, I am very happy.”
Even if Sagan is cycling’s superhero and one-man show, he’s certainly suffered his personal travails at Roubaix. In six previous starts, his best finish was sixth in 2014.
Coming into Roubaix, the pressure was building. After missing out on Sanremo and getting shelled in E3 Harelbeke, there was a foreboding that Sagan was not looking like the giant-killer who kicked to a third consecutive world title last fall. Even with victory at Gent-Wevelgem, rivals were saying he didn’t look his best.
Some were even painting Sagan as some sort of classics bust. Critics were quick to point out that he had won “only” one monument in his career, the 2016 Tour of Flanders. After falling short at Milano-Sanremo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen with sixth in both, the pressure was on.
Another problem was Quick-Step Floors, which had put a stranglehold on the classics coming into Roubaix. The Belgian outfit seemed to be toying with its rivals, above all Sagan. So Sagan took it straight back at them with a long attack Sunday that threw Quick-Step off its game.
“Sagan did a really good attack at the right moment,” said third-place finisher Niki Terpstra of Quick-Step. “Why did Sagan win? Because it was the winning move.”
Part of the problem for Sagan is that he is so good that anything less than victory is seen somehow as a disappointment. Sagan likes to say that he shrugs off expectations, but one wonders if the pressure wasn’t getting to him.
Last week, retired classics star Tom Boonen called out Sagan in an interview when he said that Sagan should stop complaining about other riders not collaborating with him. Boonen even went so far as to say that Sagan is often the one exploiting the work of others.
Overnight Saturday, Sagan posted a Tweet to Boonen with nothing more than a heart-shaped love emoji.
“For Tom Boonen, I have big respect,” Sagan said. “I was watching him when I was a young kid. He was the big rider and idol for me. I cannot tell something wrong about him. It’s like that — just respect.”
Sagan’s respect keeps growing around the peloton, and everyone knows he can never be underestimated. Even when he’s not at his best, he can pull off the win. That’s old-school class that comes with natural-born winners.
Former Roubaix winner Mat Hayman (Mitchelton-Scott) tipped his hat to Sagan’s long-distance attack. For someone who’s raced in nearly 20 editions of Paris-Roubaix, Hayman realizes how daring that move was.
“It was a great ride by Sagan. He went early and he stopped that Quick-Step domination, so I am happy for him,” Hayman said in the oval. “He’s had some bad luck and he’s been up against all these strong teams, but he put it out there. Roubaix is the race if you dare you have the chance to win. It was a pretty ballsy effort to go so far.”
Dillier, who broke his finger at Strade Bianche and was a last-minute addition for Roubaix, also said the sting of defeat is softened by the fact he lost against a rider of Sagan’s caliber.
“To lose to the best rider of our epoch in a sprint, well, I cannot be too disappointed to lose against Peter Sagan,” Dillier said. “Peter is hard to beat in a situation like that.”
The victory also electrified his team, as Sagan’s Roubaix win is Bora-Hansgrohe’s first monument in franchise history. General manager Ralph Denk had the owner of the Bora company in his team car Sunday. Sagan picked the right moment to put on a show.
“We had a few mixed results in the spring classics,” Denk said. “Paris-Roubaix was missing from his palmares. With today’s victory, we have had a very good spring season.”
There’s no one who’s higher on cycling’s hierarchy right now than Sagan. The three-time world champion is the sport’s undeniable superstar and the rider of reference in every race he starts.
It’s sometimes lonely when you’re at the top. But the view is pretty good, too.