Had Cannondale's tactics worked out exactly as planned on the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne, Oscar Gatto should have been mounting the podium on Tuesday afternoon rather than struggling to locate his team bus on a back street in Zottegem. Rather than grinning at the gentle ribbing of former manager Luca Scinto, Gatto should have been beaming for the cameras in the mixed zone.
Part of the winning 12-man break, Gatto was designated as Cannondale's man for the finishing sprint, with his usual leader Peter Sagan assigned to act as lead-out man. Sagan obligingly fulfilled his duties by opening the sprint, but Gatto ran out of road before he could come past. Although Gatto raised his arm on crossing the line, the photo finish showed that it was the Slovak who had taken the opening day spoils for the third successive year.
"You know how it is at the end of a race like that, it's not like all of your plans come off to perfection," Gatto told Cyclingnews after pausing to ask for directions to his bus. "But that's alright. The important thing is that the team is going well. I was up there with Peter today, and that's where I need to be on Sunday in Flanders, too."
Sagan clambered into the press room on Zottegem's Town Hall a short time later, and a group of reporters huddled around him as he described the finale in almost apologetic tones. It was a similar scenario to the corresponding stage in Oudenaarde two years ago, when Fabio Sabatini had been the team's man for the final sprint but Sagan followed his lead-out effort through to the line to ensure the win.
"In the last few years I've won the first stage and this year we said we wanted to do well for Oscar, so at the finish I was pulling the sprint for him. I was thinking he would pass me on the line and we would do first-second," Sagan said, and then smiled: "We did, but it was a little bit different."
While the sprint deviated from the script at the death, Cannondale's forcing in the finale to pre-empt Sagan's sharp dig on the penultimate climb of the Eikenmolen was no ad lib. "It was something we'd been planning to do from the start of the stage, so the team set a high tempo beforehand," Gatto explained.
No pressure for Flanders
After landing victory at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, Sagan's victory and his forcing on the Eikenmolen were further indications of his form ahead of the Tour of Flanders. Fellow Ronde contender Niki Terpstra was among those who managed to bridge across to Sagan, who said that he was enjoying his time on the cobbles.
"I like it because it's a different kind of racing, riding on small roads and on the cobblestones with the wind," Sagan said. "It's a different race to Tirreno or San Remo. It's a different story here."
Following his opening day victories in the past two editions of the race, Sagan has quietly conceded his overall lead on stage 2 and then opted not to line up on the final day. Although he was understandably coy about his plans, it again seems unlikely that the Slovak will complete the Three Days of De Panne this time around.
"I don't know, I will see tomorrow how I feel," he said. "I think the more important race is Flanders and I don't want to risk some crash or something. I just want to keep my condition with good training."
Sagan was adamant that his Cannondale team could match the collective might of Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Trek Factory Racing at the Tour of Flanders - "Yes, definitely," he said - and he was even more emphatic when asked if felt any pressure ahead of Sunday's race. "No," he said, with no little bemusement.
The Ronde is the alpha and omega of life in Flanders this week, and Sagan faces four more days of intense scrutiny before taking the start in Bruges, but he gamely looked put the race in some perspective. "I think life is not just riding on the bike or racing here. For sure it's my work and I want to do well. It's an important race for the team, but it's not everything."