Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) lost any hope of contesting the E3 Harelbeke when a crash on a critical section of the course left him without the service of his team car. The vehicles had been diverted at 47 kilometers to go, just before Sagan's crash damaged his shift lever.
The world champion had already missed the crucial selection and was sitting behind Stijn Vandenbergh when the big Belgian crashed heavily ahead of the Paterberg. After checking that his stricken former teammate Oscar Gatto was OK, Sagan remounted but found that his gears were jammed and his team car was nowhere in sight. He bashed his handlebars in a bid to magically summon a fix, but any hopes he had of winning the race quickly evaporated.
"It was a tough race. I didn't jump on the front group when they attacked and made the decisive move, and then the crash wiped out all the chances I had to bridge the gap," said Sagan.
Bora-Hansgrohe directeur sportif Jens Zemke insisted Sagan still had the chance to regain contact with the head of the race but explained that the bad luck couldn't have come at a more inopportune point – where team cars weren't allowed behind the riders due to the steepness of the Paterberg.
"We were standing there for three or four minutes, where there was a deviation with the team cars, so we couldn't do anything," he told Cyclingnews and another reporter.
"[Sagan] had to continue and I think the gears weren't working after the crash, then it was the Paterberg. We were waiting on the downhill and gave him new a new bike, or tried to give him a new bike, but he said 'no, no I continue'. So it was hopeless. It took too long."
Peter Sagan turned up at the start of E3 Harelbeke with flowing hair and bushy beard both heavily trimmed, coolly telling fans from the stage that his hair "was too long". There were jokes that, like Samson, he his powers might have been lost with the locks, and sure enough he later crossed the line in 108th place with the last group on the road, over 10 minutes down - though in truth it was a tale of simple bad luck.
The world champion, who won this race in 2014 and finished runner-up last year, was near the front when Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) made his customary surge on the Taaienberg, though he was caught out soon after when Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) helped form what turned out to be the race winning selection. He came to the front to try and start to bridge the gap on a number of occasions, but it was a disorganised chase group, and he spent a lot of time in the middle and towards the back.
There was some consolation for Bora-Hansgrohe as Lukas Postlberger, the 25-year-old Austrian, made the selection with race winner Van Avermaet, former world champion Gilbert, and others. Although he was dropped when the top three went clear on the Oude Kwaremont, he ploughed on and eventually finished fifth.
"It was an extremely tough and challenging race but I consider it to be the best ever of my professional career," said Postlberger, with Zemke arguing that the result shows there's more to the team than their star Sagan.
"With Postlberger, who no one knows, coming fifth - that's a big exclamation mark for us. The team is not only about one person; somebody else can jump in," he said.
Zemke noted that Sagan is "physically OK" and "super motivated" coming into this intense cobbled classics period. Bad luck is par for the course in these races, and it is hoped that Sagan has now got his out of the way as he turns his attentions to backing up last year's victories at Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.
"We are in the beginning of this campaign. We also have Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders, Scheldeprijs, and Paris-Roubaix," Zemke said. "There are a lot of races coming up. Now we have the bad luck behind us, and we look forward."