In the end, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) made it all look so startlingly easy. After soloing into Oudenaarde as the winner of the Tour of Flanders, the world champion celebrated his first Monument victory by pulling the seemingly now obligatory wheelie.
Most of the 117 riders who followed him across the finish could scarcely lift their heads, never mind their front wheels.
In years past, Sagan has suffered from an apparent surfeit of options in the finale of the big classics, never sure whether to bank on his sprint or go on the offensive, and all too often running out of energy at the crucial moment.
On Sunday, Sagan’s seemingly bottomless reservoir of strength was such that he could probably have afforded to make many of the usual mistakes and still win, but he displayed tactical nous, too, by tracking Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) when he attacked ahead of the Kruisberg, with some 32 kilometres remaining.
“Kwiatkowski did a very smart attack,” Sagan said in his post-race press conference, the inference being that he was equally sharp in marking the Pole. “We attacked early, but behind everybody was tired. There were four or five Sky riders in the group behind, so it was very good to go in a breakaway with somebody from Sky.
“It was a very strange race. I’ve done the Tour of Flanders six times but it’s never been as hard as this. It was very different from the last years, because it was full gas from start to finish. We maybe just stopped a little bit for 10 minutes, but it was a very hard race.”
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) joined Sagan and Kwiatkowski as they bridged across to the remnants of the day’s early break, and he was the only man to stay with the world champion as he pressed clear over the Oude Kwaremont. By that point, however, Sagan’s greater concern was already for Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), who was storming up the road in pursuit.
“Fabian’s in good shape but he did maybe a little bit of a mistake. He didn’t come in our breakaway, but it was a surprise,” Sagan said. “It went very well for me. On the Kwaremont, I had 20 seconds on him and on the Paterberg, I had some advantage on him too.”
Sagan still had Vanmarcke for company on the day’s final climb, the Paterberg, but he dropped the Belgian almost as an afterthought just as the gradient stiffened to its steepest pitch towards the summit. Vanmarcke hauled himself out of the saddle in a bid to keep his gear turning over, while Sagan, seated, continued pedalling smoothly and matter-of-factly pulled away. Shades of Cancellara and Boonen on the Muur in 2010.
By the time Sagan swooped down the other side, he already had 15 seconds in hand on Vanmarcke, who had now been joined by Cancellara. Three years ago, Cancellara put 90 seconds in Sagan on those final 13 kilometres to Oudenaarde, but he could scarcely claw back an inch on the Slovak in their drag race here. With three kilometres to go, the gap yawned out to 25 seconds. Game over.
“He was pulling very hard. I don’t want to say I had that under control but I thought if I go full gas, then he also has to go full gas,” Sagan said. “He also had Vanmarcke on the wheel, and I was hoping they would be trying to recover for the sprint. And it was like that. He got some seconds but then I started to have an advantage again, and in the last two or three kilometres it was good.”
Richmond and Roubaix
In each of the past two seasons, Sagan had faded dramatically in the final kilometres of the Tour of Flanders, but he was a decidedly more effervescent figure this time around. It was the fruit, perhaps, of his labours in a long altitude training camp at Sierra Nevada in February, a change from the usual programme of years past that saw him race in the Gulf ahead of the Classics.
“I changed the preparation a little bit. I think it was a help,” Sagan said. “For sure, what I did must have helped, because if not, I’d be tired now, like I was last year or two years ago. I’m very happy for this year, because what I did was good. For sure, the preparation is the base, it’s what you do in the winter to prepare.”
Sagan’s spate of second place finishes in the early part of the year invited inevitable, tired headlines about the so-called curse of the rainbow jersey. Victory in Gent-Wevelgem last week put that notion to bed, though Sagan was succinct when asked if it had changed his mind-set ahead of the Ronde. “No. Not too much,” he said.
In the lead-up to the race, FDJ manager Marc Madiot had described Sagan’s approach in more abstract terms. “Sagan has the enormous freedom of not being obliged to win in order to exist,” he told L'Équipe. Even so, in claiming his first Monument classic, Sagan has surely lifted a weight from his shoulders and dispelled the lingering doubts about his aptitude for their specific challenges.
“It’s another big victory. I won first the World Championships and now it’s something special, because I was able to win Flanders with the rainbow jersey,” Sagan said. “This was my biggest objective from the start of the year, Flanders and Roubaix. Now it’s good.”
Paris-Roubaix awaits next week, of course, but on Sunday evening in Oudenaarde, Sagan was, as ever, reluctant to cast his mind forward beyond the here and now. “Next week we’ll think about next week,” he said. “Not now.”