After a 2017 Gent-Wevelgem that ended in a stand-off, allowing Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) to slip away for victory, the build-up to last year's Tour of Flanders was dominated by the idea of Quick-Step Floors vs Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). This year, the focus has been more on the Belgian team thanks to their dominance so far this spring, but a similar dynamic recurred as Quick-Step won Flanders through Niki Terpstra, and Sagan finished frustrated in sixth place.
Incidentally, it was Terpstra with whom Sagan had played that game of brinksmanship at Gent-Wevelgem, which led Quick-Step director Wilfried Peters to up the ante by saying: "If we don't win, then he loses." At Flanders a week later, the Dutchman – whether intentionally or not – famously rode over the world champion's sunglasses as he lay crumpled on the ground on the Oude Kwaremont, while Quick-Step's Philippe Gilbert was soloing away to victory.
Terpstra was a dominant winner of the 2018 edition of De Ronde on Sunday, and Sagan, who won here in 2016, acknowledged that Quick-Step rode "a nice race". While Terpstra went solo ahead of the final climbs of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert were all with Sagan in the group of favourites behind.
Sagan could only bow to Quick-Step's superior strength in depth, but he bemoaned what he perceived as a lack of willingness from other riders to shoulder responsibility in chasing Terpstra.
"Analysing E3 Harelbeke and here, Quick-Step controlled everything. They put all of the other teams and all of us other leaders in difficulty because they opened the race very early and there weren't any domestiques left to control the race," Sagan said in Oudenaarde.
"Quick-Step are a good team because they have a lot of riders on a good level, so they can play with a few cards. Quick-Step did another very nice race, and other teams were missing a bit in terms of collaboration.
"I'm not the only rider to beat," Sagan continued. "There are 200 of us in the race. They made a mistake, I think, because that way Quick-Step will go and win all the races."
Sagan's complaints are nothing new. Indeed, over the past few years it has become clear that the extraordinary extent of the Slovak's talent might just represent his biggest weakness.
"Winning for Peter is more difficult than for the other guys," Bora-Hansgrohe directuer sportif Patxi Vila told reporters in Oudenaarde.
"If you look at Gent-Wevelgem, and the way he sprinted, we shouldn't be afraid of the sprint, so I think it was up to the others to try and help Peter. Normally he is the reference of the race, that's how it is. He's probably the rider of this generation, and that means everything starts with him.
"The mistake was we went into the Kwaremont with Terpstra too far," Vila said. "Fifty seconds, that's a lot. If it was just 20 seconds or 30, and you can see him…. Because from 50 we got to 30, so we got 20 back. If it was like 30 or even 40, and you can see him, then things would have been different. But that's a mistake we, or the leading group, has done, and then it's too late."
Sagan switched between Italian, English and Slovakian as he answered questions outside the Bora-Hansgrohe bus, and he returned to the theme of cooperation.
"It's very hard to race in my position in the group," he said. "When other riders don't wake up, it's going to be like this."
Sagan was frustrated, but he seemed more bemused than angry. In the end, the only thing he could control was his own performance, and he was perfectly satisfied with it.
"I'm very happy. I felt well. I did the maximum I could, so I'm happy with my performance. As for how the race went, it was a race like any other," he said.
"I'm very happy about my performance and also how the race finished. You know, a lot of things I couldn't change. I am just glad I did my maximum."
Sagan won Gent-Wevelgem in fine fashion last Sunday but has no other wins so far this spring, despite his perennial status as a rider who could feasibly dominate the whole campaign. Paris-Roubaix next Sunday represents his final chance to add a major result to his palmarès from this period.
Pressure, however, doesn't seem to get to the world champion, and he was typically philosophical as the doors to the Bora bus slid shut.
"Oh well," he shrugged. "The season still continues."