Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has long since reached that rarefied level where finishing 4th finish at Milan-San Remo, as he did last weekend, can be qualified with an 'only'. Three-time world champions tend to be held to a higher standard than their rivals. The Slovak may no longer wear the rainbow bands, but he continues to wear a heavy crown as the most assessed and discussed one-day rider in the professional peloton.
Although Sagan started his season with a stage victory at the Tour Down Under, he has been visibly short of his usual effervescence since returning to action following his by-now annual February block of training, with a bout of illness ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico seemingly the culprit.
Friday's E3 BinckBank Classic was Sagan's first outing on the cobbles this season, but, ultimately, it was difficult to draw firm conclusions from his 17th place finish in Harelbeke, 1:42 behind winner Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
Sagan was abruptly dropped from the group of favourites on the final climb of the Tiegemberg following a stinging acceleration from Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), but mitigation for his travails appeared over the other side when he began to signal for his team car.
By the time Sagan received on-the-hoof assistance for a problem with his derailleur in, the decisive move had disappeared up the road, and he was left to contest the minor placings. Outside the Bora-Hansgrohe bus after the finish, he played a straight bat when asked if his struggles were due to problems with his machine or his legs.
"It was a little bit both," Sagan said. “I had a little problem with shifting because something just hit my shifter and after that I could only use the 11. After the mechanic reset it again, it was working well but it wasn't at the crucial moment when Greg attacked in the final climb. After he went, I was dropped, and I stayed one group behind."
Sagan's first major cameo at E3 BinckBank Classic came with 70km to go, on the slopes of the Taaienberg, where he seemed to be channelling Tom Boonen by using the climb as a sort of testing ground, accelerating to assess his own form and check on his rivals.
The results of Sagan's own probing on 'Boonenberg' were rather inconclusive. His initial jump duly stretched the group of favourites, but he was soon passed by Danny van Poppel (Jumbo-Visma) and, with almost two hours of racing ahead of him, the Slovak opted to desist. Sagan was later one of just seven riders to follow Van Avermaet's first telling acceleration on the Paterberg, but he never looked to be at his sharpest.
"Well, it was OK, I didn't crash," Sagan said of his race. "It always a bit like a lottery if you feel good or bad this race, because it's after San Remo, so you have to recover for two or three days and after you don’t train so much, but every year is different. We will see Sunday how I'm going to feel."
Before Sagan emerged from the bus, Bora-Hansgrohe directeur sportif Jan Valach explained to waiting reporters that the Slovak's derailleur issue came about when it was hit by a stray bidon, an occupational hazard on the jarring cobbles of Flanders.
"On the last climb, he had a problem with the bike that only a mechanic could fix, not him, but in that moment, when it was split into groups and going fast, it was impossible to stop," Valach said. "That was when he lost contact with the first group."
The E3 BinckBank Classic may be the essential Tour of Flanders dress rehearsal, but Sagan's displays in Harelbeke over the years have not always tallied with his performances at De Ronde a week later. In 2014, for instance, he won in Harelbeke only to fade to a subdued 16th at the Tour of Flanders. In 2016, by contrast, he placed a surprisingly flat-footed second behind Michal Kwiatkowski in Harelbeke but then nonchalantly rattled off victory at Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders in his next two outings.
Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem, where Sagan is chasing a record fourth victory, offers an immediate chance for redemption, as well as another opportunity to run the rule over the 29-year-old's form ahead of De Ronde. "For us, all of these races are important," Valach said.
On Sunday – and indeed, every Sunday from here to Liège-Bastogne-Liège – the road to victory will run through Deceuninck-QuickStep, mind, and the Belgian squad continued their startling sequence of success with another dominant showing in Harelbeke. Stybar’s victory was teed up by a remarkable showing from Bob Jungels, while the squad’s cobbles unit also boasts Yves Lampaert and Philippe Gilbert.
"Yeah, they're having a good year and a good period," Sagan said of taking on QuickStep. "We will see later."