When called up to the stage in Antwerp's Grote Markt at the start of the 2017 Tour of Flanders on Sunday morning, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was asked 'yes or no' whether he would finish on the podium, to which he answered, 'I don't know; it's up to destiny'.
Six or so hours later, after crossing the line dusty, bruised, and three-and-a-half minutes down on solo winner Philippe Gilbert, he concluded that destiny can't, after all, have wanted him to claim back-to-back editions of De Ronde.
Sagan, with Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen in tow, was in hot pursuit of a rampant Gilbert when he dramatically hit the deck by the barriers on the Oude Kwaremont, taking down his companions in the process.
At that point, with some 16 kilometres remaining, the gap was 55 seconds and, with 13 kilometres of flat succeeding the final climb of the Paterberg, one of the most breathtaking editions of De Ronde in recent memory was truly hanging in the balance. It's one of the cruelties and beauties of the Classics that we'll never know what might have been.
Sagan, though, speaking to press between visits to the anti-doping and medical tents, had a good idea.
"I think so," he replied when asked if the trio would have caught Gilbert. "Given how I was riding and I had strong companions, so yes, I think I could have got back up to him, but destiny didn't want it."
In the sudden drama of the crash, it was at first difficult to decipher exactly what had happened. Sagan was leading the trio and making use of the thin strip of dirt by the barriers to avoid the clatter of the cobblestones on the Oude Kwaremont. It seemed he might have clipped the barrier, but the advertising banner was also ripped off, and a stray jacket lay on top of him and Naesen as they ended up in a tangle.
Sagan said he must have caught something like a jacket, but admitted full responsibility.
"It was my fault," he said. "I was close to the barriers. I was in control when I was close to the barriers, but I think we caught a jacket or something, because if I'd hit the barrier, I would have been on the ground straight away, and the bike would have stayed there.
"I felt that something caught me, but I was able to keep going forward. I wasn't stopped straightaway. When you hit the barrier like that, your handlebars would be twisted. What hampered me then was that they were going flat out behind me, and rode into me. I broke my rear wheel and my derailleur and I couldn't keep going."
Sagan, of course, was already on the back foot by the time he crashed, as opposed to 12 months ago when he was at the head of affairs going onto the Oude Kwaremont. He missed the boat when Tom Boonen lit things up with on the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen – back in the race after a six-year absence – and made a strong selection of 14, from which Gilbert skipped away 55 kilometres out, never to be seen again.
"There were some crashes on the Muur, and I couldn't get to the front. I thought that Quick-Step would do something there, but others crashed and I was a little bit behind because it was blocked with riders everywhere," Sagan explained.
"I was not far off after the Muur, but Trek pulled hard to catch me. So I thought, 'OK, if they are pulling and catch me, then they'll continue to pull to catch the break', but they stopped pedalling when they caught me. We were at six seconds and I don't know why they didn't try to catch them. That was a mistake because we were so close to catching them and they didn't do it.
"That's the thing - yet again, they raced as if they were OK and I was just there alone, but the group was up the road and someone from that group won."
Sagan won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne at the end of February, but has endured a difficult spring Classics campaign so far, narrowly missing out at Milan-San Remo before another crash – this time not his fault – scuppered his E3-Harelbeke hopes, and an argument over workload with Niki Terpstra put paid to his chances at Gent-Wevelgem.
A Paris-Roubaix breakthrough now looks more critical than ever. Time will tell if destiny will look any more favourably upon him in a week's time.
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