The Quick-Step Floors team will not allow the Tour of Flanders to play into the hands of Peter Sagan, even if it means risking their own chance of success, with the team’s directeur sportif for the Classics Wilfried Peeters, telling Cyclingnews that they don’t plan on fully collaborating with the world champion on Sunday.
Sagan criticised Niki Terpstra in the aftermath of Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, where bickering over work rate in the decisive five-man group allowed Greg Van Avermaet and Jens Keukeleire to ride away and contest the victory. He accused the Dutchman of playing a “cheap game”. Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere quickly defended his team’s tactics, with Tom Boonen adding: “Niki didn’t fail; Sagan failed.”
Sagan, whose own strength but lack of team suport seems to be his biggest weakness, is by now no stranger to rivals being unwilling to work with him, fearing they’ll only be picked off in a sprint. He has lost a fair few races either by being forced into shouldering the lion’s share of the workload or, as was the case on Sunday, simply refusing to accept that burden.
“I could decide today who could win,” said Sagan in Wevelgem, adding that Terpstra’s actions were “one example of how you can lose the race against me”.
If Sagan secretly hoped his public comments would put pressure on Quick-Step Floors, Peeters showed no indication of bowing.
“We try to win… but if we don’t win then he loses,” Peeters said with a grin, upping the ante in what is becoming quite the game of brinksmanship, both parties bluffing that they’re willing to lose the race, with mutually assured destruction the natural conclusion.
“It’s normal for him now [to complain about others not working with him]. Why have too much respect for Sagan? I’m not saying we’re not riding with him; we don’t give 100 per cent support – that’s something different.”
If Peeters is joining the mind games it’s because he’s under no illusion as to the quality of Sagan. In fact, despite Quick-Step Floors being the established reference point when it comes to the spring Classics, he conceded they are going into De Ronde on the back foot and as underdogs against Sagan and Van Avermaet, who has won E3-Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem last week.
“You can see there are two riders who are the strongest, and that’s Sagan and Van Avermaet – everybody knows it. That ranking is the real ranking, and we are for sure behind,” said Peeters.
“You could see on the Kemmelberg that those two guys were stronger than the others. It’s not certain that one of them is going to win on Sunday but they are the two big favourites, that’s for sure.”
Strength in depth
While Van Avermaet and Sagan are both the out-and-out leaders of their respective teams, BMC and Bora-Hansgrohe, revolving around them, Quick-Step Floors have a rather different situation: an enviable depth of talent but no clear figure at the top of the pecking order.
“We have more guys – sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing,” acknowledged Peeters.
Indeed, things worked perfectly at Dwars door Vlaanderen when Yves Lampaerts took advantage of Philippe Gilbert’s presence in the front group to steal away and take victory, but the Belgian team muddled its lines at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
They got three men into the decisive 14-rider move that formed after the Kemmelberg, and Terpstra made the boat when a five-man split went away but there was confusion over tactics, with Tom Boonen and the directors weighing in on race radio, which cut out at a couple of key moments.
With Terpstra hesitant to fully commit to the move, thinking he should play the card of fast finisher Matteo Trentin in the group behind, a gap opened up to Van Avermaet and Jens Keukeleire and became insurmountable when he and Sagan began debating who should work to close it.
“Every time you don’t win you there are some things you could have done better,” said Peeters.
“We were in a situation where we had two fast riders behind, and we didn’t need to support the break 100 per cent if we weren’t sure we could win. There was a miscommunication, but we said ‘some turns but not full gas – support the break and we look at what to do in the final two kilometres. If the bunch comes back we have another option. We don’t need to pull and bring other guys to the finish'.
“It’s not always clear what you say on the radios to the riders. Looking at the race on television, it’s more clear than it is in the car.”
Peeters and the Quick Step Floor riders will now formulate a plan for how to land a sixth victory at De Ronde.
“Everybody needs to know his place, that’s important, but we will also need to decide things in the race,” he said.
Either way, it’s likely to revolve just as much around Sagan as his own riders.