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Sagan’s cobbles reign officially begins at Flanders

Peter Sagan erases the asterisk that was on his palmares by winning Sunday's Tour of Flanders, leaving everyone behind on the Paterberg.

OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Ever since Peter Sagan’s meteoric arrival in 2010, there was one gnawing asterisk.

The Tinkoff star could shrug off all those second places, simply because he still managed to win plenty as well as rack up green points jerseys. Those close calls in the big races were forgotten with one perfectly timed attack in Richmond last September to earn the world champion’s jersey. Yet the rider whom many hailed as cycling’s next Eddy Merckx had yet to win one monument to the Belgian legend’s 19. On Sunday, Sagan erased that asterisk, and powered away from everyone at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) to win solo. He even had time for a post-finish line wheelie.

“This was his dream,” said Tinkoff sport director Tristan Hoffman. “He has won many races, and he was many times second. Today he was the best.”

That’s putting it mildly. For a rider who just days before said there was “no right tactics” for the Ronde, Sagan played it perfectly. He followed the attacking Michal Kwiatkowski of Sky in a regrouping after the Taaienberg climb with just over 30km to go, and then dropped Sep Vanmarcke of LottoNL – Jumbo on the Paterberg. With arch-rival Fabian Cancellara of Trek – Segafredo chasing behind, Sagan time trialed it alone into Oudenaarde to become the first world champion to win Flanders since Tom Boonen in 2006.

“He was Super Sagan today,” said veteran Trek sport director Dirk Demol. “Fabian is an honest rider, and he realized that Sagan was super strong today.”

The setting couldn’t have been more dramatic for Sagan’s unequivocal consecration. It was the Ronde’s 100th edition, with Cancellara’s final appearance in a race he won three times, set against the backdrop of two recent deaths in cycling and a string of terrorist attacks in Brussels that threatened to overshadow cycling’s most popular one-day race. To add even more drama to the race, Sagan was racing in the rainbow jersey.

Sagan was gracious in winning — dedicating the race to Antoine Demoitié and Daan Myngheer, the two riders who died last week — but merciless in battle. There is no room for sympathy in a bike race, and Sagan is now gaining the racing acumen to match his oversized engine. His power was never in question, but more and more, he is adding intelligence to the equation.

“Peter used his instincts today. Attacking so early wasn’t part of the plan,” Hoffman said. “They got a gap of 50 meters and went full-gas. Then he attacked on the Paterberg, and he went alone. They were beautiful tactics.”

Two key surges — one on the Kwaremont to drop Kwiatkowski and the others in the breakaway, and a second on the Paterberg to drop Vanmarcke — were worthy of the rainbow stripes, and they put Sagan in pole position for the biggest win of his career.

“Nobody wants to work with me,” Sagan said. “It’s always better to drop everybody.”

But there was more to it than that. Sagan is getting better at reading the race, and he is more and more capable of matching his power with racing smarts. A younger Sagan would simply churn his pedals, and turn around to see who was still on his wheel. This spring, Sagan is racing smarter and better. Coming into Sunday, he knew Etixx – Quick-Step was strong in numbers but lacking an explosive leader. At the moment of his attack, Trek had just pulled to bring back Cancellara to the front, so he sensed they were on the limit. Sky was there en masse, so when he went with Kwiatkowski up the road, he knew the Brits wouldn’t be chasing from behind. Sagan read the situation perfectly, and once Vanmarcke linked up, they had three very committed riders.

“It was an early attack, but the race was hard. I saw in the group, all the riders were tired,” Sagan described. “After the Taaienberg, we went into a break with 12 riders. Oscar Gatto and a Trek rider were pulling to hold the gap. The group reformed, but it was small. Kwiatkowski did a smart attack. We went into the attack early, yes, but everyone was tired, and Sky had four or five riders. It would have been good to go into a break with someone from Sky.”

The fact that Sagan later dropped Vanmarcke on the Paterberg — the same climb where Cancellara dropped him in 2013 — also serves as a fitting reference point to recalibrate the power structure within the peloton.

It’s been a few years coming, but Sagan’s emphatic Flanders victory Sunday confirms his rank as cycling’s king of the classics hill.

Riders such as Cancellara and Boonen are entering the swansong of their prolific careers. Flanders will never see Cancellara again, and after a distant 15th, many are wondering the same about Boonen, who remains ambivalent about his racing future. The pair dominated the northern classics for the better part of a decade, but their time is over.

Who else can challenge Sagan? A few years older than Sagan are Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Vanmarcke, and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx), quality riders who have so far been unable to break into the win column for a major classic. Coming up from below are riders like Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe (Sky), Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale), and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto – Soudal), but none of them, with the possible exception of Kwiatkowski, can match Sagan’s consistency, his brute strength, and all-round versatility.

Boonen tipped his hat to Sagan and almost seemed to be unofficially passing the baton to the Slovak, similar to how Johan Museeuw decreed Boonen the new man for the cobbles a generation ago.

“It’s a massive performance. It’s very nice to reach the finish solo as a world champion,” Boonen said of Sagan. “He’s a rider who put a step forward this year. He’s someone I like a lot and it pleases me that he won today. If you see how Peter finished it off solo, then he’s the deserved winner.”

We’re in the midst of the new Sagan Age, and with Sunday’s resounding victory, Peter the Great finally takes his cobbles crown. Thousands of cheering fans in Oudenaarde’s central square paid homage to the new king.