Another year, another major supporting role in a Paris-Roubaix victory. As Peter Sagan made his way to the podium to be feted as the winner, his Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Daniel Oss leant against his bike in the Roubaix velodrome and surveyed the scene.
Twelve months ago, Oss played a key part in helping Greg Van Avermaet to win the Hell of the North, but left BMC in the off-season to link up once more with his former Liquigas teammate Sagan at Bora-Hansgrohe.
Oss again showed his value as a key domestique at Paris-Roubaix, working to pull back Zdenek Stybar's attack, and then helping to lay the groundwork for Sagan's winning acceleration with some 55 kilometres to go to the finish. Bora's tactics had baffled at the Tour of Flanders a week ago, but strategies are more loosely fitted in a race as unpredictable as Paris-Roubaix and Oss is excellent at improvisation.
"There were some small, unwritten rules to follow. The first was to stay in front, the second was to anticipate if possible, and get to the finish with some legs left," said Oss.
"There was a plan but obviously plans at a race like this aren't always respected because so many things can happen. So with a guiding line to work off, and a bit of instinct thrown in on top of it, we managed to get the win."
Oss had helped to soften up the group of favourites by launching a speculative effort as they came out of sector 14 of pavé, with 60 kilometres still to race. Sagan reached that mark without having suffered any crashes or mechanical mishaps – a rarity in his vexed relationship with the race to this point – but not even Oss knew that he was planning to test the waters so far from the velodrome.
The winning move happened abruptly. After Stybar was caught, Van Avermaet launched a laboured attack that was immediately brought to heel. Sagan responded with interest, the others looked at each other to chase, and the world champion was away, never to be seen again by the group of favourites. As simple and as complicated as that.
"It was maybe an idea that was in his head beforehand but that moment is something he will have seized instinctively," Oss suggested, who reached the finish in 40th place, and strained in the final kilometres to listen for news of Sagan's sprint win against Silvan Dillier over his radio earpiece.
"The rest, he did himself. As the race goes on, everybody gets tired and it all evens out. If you're in front, you stay up there, and if you're behind, you stay back there."
Not bowing to Quick-Step Floor's strength
Although Sagan was numbered among the short odds favourites for Paris-Roubaix, all eyes beforehand were on Quick-Step Floors, who have been so dominant on the cobbles this spring.
The Belgian squad lined up with three or even four potential winners in Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert, but Oss noted that there was a world of difference between respecting their strength and bowing to it.
"Yes, they've won everything up to now, so it was normal to set out knowing that they were the strongest, but that didn't mean we believed any less in our chances," Oss pointed out. "We knew what Peter had in his head, heart and legs, and the same thing went for the whole team."
In the event, Quick-Step Floor's strength seemed almost to play against them. Gilbert went clear after the Arenberg Forest and used up considerable energy before opting to relent. Stybar seemed determined not to get caught on man-marking duties and attacked shortly afterwards, but he too was forced to sit up. Terpstra was again the strongest of Quick-Step Floor's four but he missed Sagan's attack and had a lack of allies in the chasing group.
"It was all quite under control," Oss said of the Gilbert and Stybar attacks. "We knew what might happen. In the race, we were able to stay calm, stay in the wheels, close the gaps when we needed and then create the winning situation. In a moment when there was a bit of general crisis, Peter seized the moment."
Like most in the velodrome, Oss was unaware at that point of the plight of Michael Goolaerts, who suffered cardiac arrest during the race and died in hospital in Lille on Sunday night. Shortly afterwards, when race director Christian Prudhomme stood in the same spot and gravely expressed his concern for Goolaerts, it became evident that, even amid the festive atmosphere of the velodrome, the 2018 Paris-Roubaix would forever be tinged with sadness.
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