Rumours of his demise, it seems, were greatly exaggerated. There were more questions than answers after Peter Sagan’s subdued showing at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, but a third victory at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday will have dispelled any lingering doubts surrounding the world champion's form ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
Sagan, mind, seems preternaturally inured to doubt, a condition perhaps to be expected from a man who has claimed three world titles in succession, and there was a certain insouciance about his winning sprint on Vanackerstraat.
Despite the presence of some noted fast men in the 22-strong front group that contested the win, Sagan opted to open his effort some 180 metres from the line. Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) never looked like getting back on terms, and had to settle for the consolation prizes as the Bora-Hansgrohe rider cruised to victory.
"I did a lot of times bad days like that in Harelbeke," Sagan shrugged in the press room afterwards. "I did Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, then I rested a little bit, and I went to Harelbeke like not 100 per cent.
"I was concentrated, yes, but if you don't feel good, what can you do? It's about your legs, not just about your head. A lot of times it's happened to me that in Harelbeke I was bad and in Gent I was good."
Sagan has previous in this regard. Two years ago, he almost seemed to grind to a halt against Michal Kwiatkowski in the two-up sprint that decided E3 Harelbeke, only to bounce back with victory in a keenly-contested Gent-Wevelgem 48 hours later. In 2013, Sagan responded to a sound beating from Fabian Cancellara in Harelbeke with a solo win in a snow-shortened edition of Gent-Wevelgem.
This third triumph brings him level with the record jointly held by Eddy Merckx, Mario Cipollini, Rik Van Looy, Tom Boonen and Robert Van Eenaeme, and was, it seems, the most straightforward of the lot.
"Of all the Gent-Wevelgem races I've done before, this was the easiest one with weather conditions and everything," Sagan said. "It was a little bit stressed but not crazy like in the last years. The sprint is always a little bit like a lottery. I just decided to start a little bit early and in the end it was very good, I had the legs to hold this sprint."
If E3 Harelbeke is a miniature Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem is a race unto itself, whose distinct rhythm is often dictated by the prevailing winds off the North Sea. This time out, it was a relatively tranquil day along the Franco-Belgian border, though Sagan was well placed when the race threatened to break up along the so-called plugstreets with 50 kilometres remaining, and was again present and correct when the decisive split took shape after the final ascent of the Kemmelberg.
"I think Gent is a very different race to Flanders, maybe it [Flanders – ed.] is more similar to Harelbeke," Sagan said. "Gent can be a hard race when there's really strong wind, bad weather, but today was pretty – I don't want to say easy, but it was like a nicer year than what I did here before."
Both in victory and in defeat, Sagan tends to deal in succinct answers and aphorisms. He gave short shrift to the idea that he had needed to offer a confirmation of his form ahead of the Tour of Flanders, and brushed off the notion that Gent-Wevelgem victory was a response to criticism of his performance in Harelbeke.
"For sure, it's better to win than to lose," Sagan said. "I don't watch these critics or read the newspapers. Why do I have to read it? If you are good, you are good. If you are bad, you always have critics. It's my life, it's not the journalists' life."
Sagan's two previous Gent-Wevelgem wins preceded his best Ronde showings to date, namely his second place in 2013 and his lone Monument win thus far in 2016. He was coy, however, about what Ronde pointers could be drawn from this edition of Gent-Wevelgem.
"For sure, it's different. Already the style of races or cycling is changing, and every year it's different. It depends," Sagan said. "What happened last year was a unique victory for Philippe [Gilbert], I think. Maybe it's going to happen next time, but it was really unique, I think."
And his own chances?
"Last year, maybe I felt good too, but I fell on the ground," Sagan laughed, recalling his crash on the Kwaremont. "But I'm here and I want to do my best. It's coming and it's OK."
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