A victory a la Eddy Merckx: Belgium reacts to Sagan’s Flanders win

Monday morning in Flanders and hyperbole is not in short supply. Peter Sagan’s victory at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday extended Belgium’s run without a win to four years but unlike twelve months ago, the Flemish press preferred to revel in the visiting conqueror’s triumph than bemoan the lot of the home riders.

Sagan was pictured on the front page of Het Nieuwsblad pretending to down two Duvels beers at once, a gesture always likely to curry favour in this corner of the world, and the newspaper was generous in its praise of the world champion’s solo victory.

“Rock ‘n Roll at the De Ronde” was the headline above a picture of Sagan performing a wheelie as he crossed the line, and Het Nieuwsblad dared to approach a line seldom crossed, too, when it decreed that that Sagan’s winning attack had been a “solo à la Eddy Merckx.”

Another article described Sagan’s win as a “godsend for the race” and argued that the Slovak was the most compelling personality in contemporary cycling.

“Cancellara: professional the Swiss. Boonen: the smooth, popular Fleming. Wiggins: the weirdo from England. All of them had something that made them particularly popular,” Het Nieuwsblad wrote. “But nobody understands better than Sagan that sport in the 21st century should be fun.”

Het Laatste Nieuws appeared equally smitten – “What a race! What a rider!” it exclaimed – and it also primly noted that since the alteration of the Tour of Flanders finale in 2012, only “great riders” had won and “the same can’t be said of other moments like Milan-San Remo.”

Walloon newspaper La Dernière Heure’s literary pun, meanwhile, was surely the best headline on the newsstands on Monday morning: “Sagan, adieu tristesse.”

“Another disappointment for QuickStep,” said La Dernière Heure. “We were good but not good enough,” was manager Patrick Lefevere’s take in Het Nieuwsblad, and that seemed the consensus in the media, too. Het Laatste Nieuws did, however, note that the likelihood of Tom Boonen winning the Ronde again was a remote one.

“The hills of the Ronde have become too hard, too steep and too long for him. If Boonen is still a rider next year, it will be a miracle if he is ready to fight for the win again,” Het Laatste Nieuws wrote, though it looked to strike an optimistic note about his chances in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. “He’s had a difficult rehabilitation from his crash last year but if Boonen wins a fifth Roubaix, it will surely all have been worth it.”

The crashes that dashed Greg Van Avermaet and Tiesj Benoot’s hopes were certainly mitigation for the home nation. “Spring is over for Van Avermaet and Benoot,” Het Nieuwsblad noted glumly, before manfully attempting to perform a reconstruction of who caused the crash. By comparison, Sep Vanmarcke’s third place finish received relatively little fanfare. “Everything finally went well for him,” Het Laatste Nieuws noted.

There was criticism for Cancellara’s failure to track Sagan’s attack with Michal Kwiatkowski, though there was praise for his subsequent attempt to fight back over the Kwaremont and Paterberg en route to his eventual second place.

“What a great, hard rider Cancellara still is,” Het Laatste Nieuws wrote. “But Sagan is better, younger and he rides harder.”

There is no room for sentiment in Flanders it seems, as summed up by a feature in Het Nieuwsblad on Cancellara’s Flemish fan club, based in Oudenaarde –who will celebrate the Swiss rider on Monday afternoon.

What will happen now that Cancellara has raced his final Tour of Flanders? “Next year, we’re cheering for Sep,” they replied cheerily.

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