Halfway between the Paterberg and the Tour of Flanders finish line in Oudenaarde, Peter Sagan was slowing down.
He’d ripped off the top of the climb six kilometers ago with an 11-second gap on Fabian Cancellara (a steam locomotive train compressed into the size of a human being), but now that Cancellara and his lame duck running mate Sep Vanmarcke had gotten themselves organized, the catch appeared likely. Sagan’s easy form—laconic upper body, furious pedaling cadence—had started to warp a bit, and he was looking back to locate his pursuers. The commentators openly speculated about whether or not he would ease up and try to win the race from a sprint.
Seven minutes later, the World Champion emerged alone, wheelie-ing across the finish line amid a sea of yellow Flemish flags 30 seconds clear of his pursuers.
Sagan’s won a ton of races a ton of different ways. There’s last year’s Tour of California, where he out-climbed a bunch of skinny GC dudes to win the overall, or the four stages he’s won at the Tour de France by out-sprinting the world’s best fast men, or the 2015 World Championships Sagan took by kind of rolling away from the peloton on a descent. His versatility, however, has almost harmed him over the past two seasons, and the narrative surrounding the most recent part of his recent career (the Worlds aside) has been one of frustration.
He finished in second place on five stages at the Tour last year, second at this year’s E3 Harelbeke, and second at the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Sagan is so strong that, tactically speaking, his path to victory is almost too open. Indecision about whether to sprint or attack has cost Sagan a few races in the last year (especially at Stage 13 of last year’s Tour, when he kept hesitating to really take up the sprint and allowed Greg Van Avermaet to half-sprint for the win).
So today’s win, where Sagan held off the greatest time trialist in cycling history and a break-mate for 13 kilometers, was Sagan’s first victory in a Monument, but it was also sort of tactical breakthrough. It perhaps would have been safer for the Slovakian had Sagan escaped off the Paterberg in a small group with Cancellara and Vanmarcke, on account of 13 kilometers is a long way and Cancellara is closer to something our friends at Jalopnik would cover than a cyclist with limits and flaws.
But sometimes nuance is garbage and you have to just try to grind all your competitors into dust. After the race, Sagan more or less confirmed that, yeah, waiting up for the stragglers or trying to play it cool and win a sprint would have been too complicated:
“It’s very hard to work with the other guys, no one wants to work with me,” he said. “It’s always better to drop everybody. But it’s not easy.”
As for Cancellara, he made a mistake not joining a move by Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski 30 kilometers out just after the Taaienberg. The Swissman came within ten seconds of catching back up to Sagan on a few occasions but the energy he expended to chase probably cost him his ability to hunt Sagan down on the backstretch. Had he won, Cancellara would have become the only rider ever to win four Tours of Flanders, but he’ll have to end his career tied with five other cyclists. After the race, he sounded rather disappointed and drained:
“I missed this key moment when Sagan went with Kwiatkowski,” Cancellara said. “I did the maximum today, but I just missed this one second. Sep was the last one to close that gap. [Why not go?] Ask me tomorrow. I do not even know why right now.”
Cancellara is one of the greatest classics riders ever, and some of his greatest successes have come at Flanders. When he rolled across the line, he gave a wave of thanks to the Belgian fans, and Vanmarcke saluted him as he came in a few seconds later.
For how bummed Cancellara was (look at the dead-eyed look with which he considers the world as he quaffs his podium beer), he’ll have his chance for redemption in one week’s time at Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North is cruel and menacing in ways that Flanders is not, which makes it perfect for Cancellara. He’s won thrice in Roubaix, and he can tie for the most victories ever if he wins next Sunday. Since last year’s winner John Degenkolb is still out injured, Alexander Kristoff is having a down year, Etixx - Quick-Step haven’t figured out how to use their strength in numbers, and BMC all fell today, Cancellara will leave Paris as the easy favorite.
But he’ll have to beat Sagan again, who’s now riding without the pressure of never having won a monument.