Peter Sagan rolled across the line at E3 Harelbeke in 26th place, more than three minutes down on solo winner Niki Terpstra. The ripped bib shorts told part of the story, but the world champion also admitted that he didn't feel at his best, and suspected that certain riders were conspiring against him.
Sagan cut a thoroughly miserable figure as he rolled from the finish line to the Bora-Hansgrohe bus. He climbed straight on for a shower, and team officials initially said he wouldn't be coming out to speak to the press, but he did later emerge to offer his thoughts on a trying day in the saddle.
"Ah, well, it was a little bit of a hard race for me today, and I didn't feel very well," he said.
"What happened? In the end, I was a little bit… it was a little bit hard to stay in the front."
Sagan was on the right side of the big crash that shaped the race at the half-way mark, and was an active part of the chase groups that chopped and changed behind the leading duo of Terpstra and his Quick-Step Floors teammate Yves Lampaert, who'd gone clear on the Taainberg with 75km to go. He made an effort to close the gap to the duo early on, and he went clear from the chase ahead of the Eikenberg, only to find another Quick-Step rider glued to his wheel in Philippe Gilbert.
After Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe) came back to help mount a chase, Sagan missed the boat when Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) set off with Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) and Gilbert, and the race would only continue to slip away from him. As riders came back into contention in what was now the third group on the road, Sagan was dropped from it over the Paterberg-Oude Kwaremont combination of climbs with just under 40km to go.
"I saw guys a little bit playing games with me, like you go to pull and after they attack," said Sagan, who acknowledged Quick-Step's strength.
"They pulled really hard and after they split peloton because there was a big crash, I think. It was hard to chase back to the front. They were strong, for sure.
"We stayed in the front with the guys who were pulling before, and after they were dropped because they were tired. Then the other guys who were fresh, they crashed, and after I just stayed in the front with Daniel. He tried to chase the first two guys but then there was attacking, he came back again, there were other attacks, he came back again. And after he was tired… like me."
If there were question marks surrounding Sagan going into this week, they have only intensified, with the Tour of Flanders now barely a week away.
Having twice finished on the podium of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the past two years, he skipped the 'opening weekend' this time around in order to prepare a little differently for the main spring Classics period. Eighth at Strade Bianche, he then recorded three second places at Tirreno-Adriatico before finishing sixth at Milan-San Remo on Saturday.
Asked if he was worried, with Gent-Wevelgem coming up on Sunday and De Ronde just seven days later, he was typically philosophical.
"Ah well, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. That's life," he said.
"Sunday is going to be better, I think."
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