Peter Sagan may have insisted beforehand that he was approaching the Tour of Flanders as though it were simply another race, but his disappointment afterwards was certainly that of a man keenly aware of its importance.
As at Milan-San Remo two weeks ago, when he could only manage 10th in the final sprint, Sagan rode directly to his Cannondale bus on crossing the line in Oudenaarde and clambered aboard without speaking to the reporters waiting outside.
16th place, 1:25 down on winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) was not how Sagan had envisaged his day would end, and he was in no mood to articulate his dissatisfaction to the outside world. Instead, it was left to team manager Roberto Amadio to speak on his behalf, explaining that Sagan simply did not have the wherewithal to follow Cancellara when he began his forcing on the final time up the Oude Kwaremont.
"It went well until 30 kilometres to go but he was probably lacking the legs a bit,” Amadio said. "He had to work a bit before because he was alone. But then Cancellara was alone too and he won. In the finale, he was lacking something."
Twelve months ago, Sagan had bounded up the Kwaremont in pursuit of Cancellara and only lost the Swiss rider's wheel on the short, sharp haul up the last climb, the Paterberg. This time around, however, Sagan's pedal stroke was more leaden, and he instantly conceded ground once Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) hit the front. The time that Sagan lost on the climb was not insurmountable, but the blow to his confidence, it seems, was crippling.
"Not every year is the same. He came out of the Kwaremont only 6 or 7 seconds down so he was in the mix but at that point he needed collaboration from the others too," Amadio said. "He probably lost a bit of morale when he was dropped. Morale is important. It was a series of circumstances, and there’s no need to make a drama out of it. It’s another race gone by."
Sagan had shown few visible signs of discomfort on the opening two ascensions of the Kwaremont, or when the race's first major selection took place on the Taaienberg, where he found himself in a group of thirteen with Cancellara and four Omega Pharma-QuickStep riders, including Tom Boonen. Indeed, Sagan was proactive in shutting down gaps as that move ebbed and flowed, and perhaps looked more at ease than he had done at a similar juncture en route to victory at E3 Harelbeke last week.
"We told him to work a bit less because he didn't need to. But he's the one who was in the race and he knows how to manage himself. He wasn't there in the finale, full stop," Amadio said.
The team bus pulled away towards the Cannondale's classics base at the Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk shortly afterwards and some time later, a press release was issued on Sagan's behalf, containing his brief thoughts on the day's action.
"It's never easy to comment on a disappointing result and there aren't many words to say right now," Sagan said. "I did not perform as I wanted in a key moment of the race. When Cancellara and Vanmarcke attacked on the Oude Kwaremont I wasn't able to push hard enough to follow them. I've lost the right moment, simply no other reasons.
"Maybe it was just an off day – If I had ridden yesterday, for sure I was able to win."
Sagan will return to action at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, before lining up at Paris-Roubaix next weekend, his first tilt at the pavé of northern France since 2011. For a normal 24-year-old rider, a spring that includes E3 Harelbeke victory would be viewed as a resounding success, but as Taylor Phinney noted during the week, the Slovak is something of an anomaly.
By his own very high standards, Sagan has disappointed in the first two monuments of the season, but Amadio was hopeful that he would respond positively to the relative setback at Paris-Roubaix.
"It's important to know how to react and Paris-Roubaix is another race," Amadio said. "It's beautiful, important and unpredictable. From this evening he'll concentrate on that and look to get a result. The important riders are the same ones – Vanmarke, Cancellara, Boonen – the guys who were up there today. Peter was up there too, so he needs to keep believing, right until the velodrome."