HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — The Peter Sagan star appears to be flickering, judging by his finish in E3 Harelbeke, a race he won a year ago and one that should be easy for a cyclist aiming at the monuments like next week’s Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Team Tinkoff-Saxo’s Sagan followed the attack of Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) on the Oude Kwaremont and raced away with the two, but when they approached the business end of the 215-kilometer race, his lights began to fade.
“It’s shit because in that group of three he should’ve been the fastest,” Tinkoff sports director, Tristan Hoffman told VeloNews.
“He was so disappointed. Then, to make it worse, [the] whole group passes him.”
Sagan faded as fast as the setting sun over Harelbeke when Thomas attacked for the win, 4.3 kilometers out. Instead of responding, he looked to Czech champion Stybar, who rode away on his own. Making matters worse, as Hoffman pointed out, the group swallowed up Sagan before the finish. He finished in 30th place.
The 25-year-old from Slovakia explained to the team that he felt empty and like vomiting in the last kilometers when Thomas attacked.
“He hadn’t done anything crazy on the front, but suddenly he went empty,” Hoffman added. “Of course, he was one hour at his maximum to stay on the front and that’s how it is.”
The explanation might have worked if Sagan was still a first-year professional, but he is in his sixth year and being paid a reported $4 million a year to win races. To that point, Hoffman said, “It’s shit.”
“He also had it before in Strade Bianche, so it’s not the terrain or his experience,” Hoffman continued.
“It wasn’t a hunger flat. That’s what you’d think it is, but he said, ‘I’ve been eating and that’s not a problem.’ For sure, Bobby Julich, his trainer, and the others will talk. Of course, we will analyze the race and try to do better.”
The cycling world hyped Sagan as the next king when he emerged in 2010. He rocketed ahead to wins and the accompanying points jersey in almost every stage race. In the Tour de France, he has four stage wins and three green jerseys.
In the classics, he was just as impressive. Winning the E3 Harelbeke in 2014 and Gent-Wevelgem in 2013. He stopped just shy of a major monument win with second place in both Milano-Sanremo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2013.
In 2014, though, the “Saganator” slowed. The idea was that, with the backing of Tinkoff-Saxo, the team he joined on a three-year deal this winter, he would flower in 2015. That has not happened yet.
“Some riders need to fight for four years to get to a certain level, but Peter comes in and he’s the best, but now the others moved up to that level,” Hoffman said.
“He’s not worse. He’s still an extraordinary rider in the peloton even if he doesn’t win as often as before.
“It will come again. He’s a professional, he really wants to improve, he doesn’t just want to sit and leave it how it is. He wants it, and the team wants it, no doubt about it.”
His troubles could not come at a worse time for the team. This week, the Russian/Danish team announced it sidelined team manager Bjarne Riis. It is reportedly due to a lack of results and a rift with team owner, Oleg Tinkov.
Hoffman did not want to talk about the issues.
“I want to just concentrate on the racing, not other stuff,” Hoffman.
“I think if Oleg [Tinkov] watched the race today, he’d be happy to see what the boys did, but of course he’d be disappointed with the result.”
Sagan arrived later to the neon yellow bus and went inside immediately. After coming out, he could not explain what is going on.
“I think you can see on television how I felt,” Sagan said.
“I was on the front, but afterwards … We will see now on Sunday [in Gent-Wevelgem], and then it’s another two weeks.”
Hoffman explained that Sagan could bounce back in the next two weeks, when he will race the Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday, April 5, and Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, April 12.
“Peter has the condition, no doubt,” Hoffman added, “but now we have to work to make sure he gets his head turned around so that he believes in it and in his chances to win races.”