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Peter Sagan combined strength and tactics to win his first major one-day race at Ghent-Wevelgem

Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday March 24, 2013

It’s hard to say whether Peter Sagan’s primary emotion following his victory in Ghent-Wevelgem will be joy, or relief. The Slovakian has spent one and a half Classics seasons finishing in the top five of one major race or another, yet a win has seemed a long time in coming.

There was no point in coming second again, so Sagan switched his tactics for Ghent-Wevelgem. In the past he’s been a victim of his own physical strength – he’s a strong sprinter, but not a superb one, nor a particularly subtle one. Nevertheless, he’s always been content to leave races to the final dash for the line, and he’s been repeatedly found out by cleverer riders.

Today was different. Sagan was alert enough to be at the front of a reduced peloton, which had only just come together following the first crossing of the Kemmelberg. In the lull which followed, Heinrich Haussler attacked, Sagan and his team-mate Maciej Bodnar chased, and a nine-rider break formed, almost accidentally. Unconditionally gifted a minute’s lead by the peloton, the break would stick, despite a concerted chase.

Then, instead of waiting for what would have been a complicated headwind sprint, Sagan made a single decisive, attack, with four kilometres to go. The effort he would normally put into sprinting went into the attack, and it beat his rivals on two levels. First, it was physically impressive – Juan-Antonio Flecha, then Borut Bozic and Greg Van Avermaet took turns in chasing, but none could match his acceleration, which meant the gap did not close. Into the headwind, they visibly lost heart and momentum. Second, it caught them unawares. Sagan was one of the three best sprinters in the group, with every reason to wait for the sprint.

Sagan’s attack was a gamble, but an intelligent one. It wasn’t going to be easy riding four kilometres alone into a block headwind – his success depended entirely on there being no concerted chase behind him. As he’d hoped, individual ambition among the nine riders (all representing different teams) quickly overrode common enterprise. Within seconds, they’d started foxing and feinting in anticipation of a sprint among themselves. Game over.

Ahead, Sagan was moving smoothly clear. The only unconcluded business was which victory salute he would employ, and he was almost 30 seconds clear by the time he wheelied over the finish line.

***

Not for the first time in this freezing cold Classics season, the favourites were left exposed at the front of the race by a combination of aggressive racing and inclement weather. The opening 100 minutes of the race were extraordinarily hard, with the peloton repeatedly splitting up under pressure from Omega Pharma and Sky, uncoincidentally two of the biggest teams yet to have won a Classic this year. The aggression didn’t ultimately break up the bunch, but it got rid of a lot of riders at the back of the field, who might have been useful later in the race.

The pace was so hot that it was only with 90 kilometres to go that a break even gained any time at all – Juan-Antonio Flecha of Vacansoleil, Mathieu Ladagnous of FDJ and Assan Bazayev of Astana took advantage of this first truce to jump clear. Flecha’s attack confirmed what the cycling world has suspected for some time – that his rivals are less wary of him than they might have been three or four years ago. His ambition still matches his former strength, but his modus operandi has reverted to attacking a long way out. Even then, with only two hours left to race, the trio were given no more than a couple of minutes’ lead before it started coming back in again.

Aptly for a race which criss-crosses the killing fields of World War One, the truce in the peloton was a fragile one. BMC sent Philippe Gilbert over the top on the Baneberg climb, which prompted a hasty chase from Sky. Moments like this have more effect on a race than we may initially realise. With Gilbert neutralised, after a couple of kilometres of hard riding, we look at the front of the bunch, see the riders together again, and assume that nothing has happened. But the less-visible, and crucial effect, is at the other end of the bunch. Helicopter television shots after Gilbert’s attack showed just 50 riders, led by a fast-moving echelon of BMC riders, a couple of hundred metres clear of another 60, tailed off, and chasing hard to try and get back on terms. Some never made it, leaving the bunch another few riders short of being able to mount concerted chases of dangerous attacks.

Over the Kemmelberg the first time, further damage was done. The Kemmelberg’s more than just a climb – the narrow descent, and exposed flat section afterwards, often split the field where the climb has merely strung the riders out. Over the summit, the peloton’s integrity was intact, but within three kilometres, just 30 seconds behind the Flecha trio, a group of just under 30 riders were being frantically chased, then joined by another 15. Behind them: nobody.

It was from this group, with 57 kilometres to go, that Heinrich Haussler (IAM) attacked. The Australian’s another rider whose best Classics results are some years in the past, and it looked like he no longer trusted his primary weapon – his sprint – enough to rely on it, going for a long one instead.

Cannondale chased, the peloton split, and quietly, softly, without fireworks, the winning break had formed. Haussler would catch Flecha, Bazayev and Ladagnous, then Sagan, Bodnar, Bernhard Eisel (Sky), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Andrey Amador (Movistar), Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack), Borut Bozic (Astana) Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma) and Jens Debusschere (Lotto) bridged up.

With so many teams represented in the front group, nobody in the peloton wanted to chase. Sky were happy with 2010 winner Eisel up there, while BMC had 2011 Paris-Tours winner Greg Van Avermaet in the group. The crucial decision was taken by Omega Pharma – they had Cavendish in the peloton, and Het Nieuwsblad runner-up Stijn Vandenbergh at the front. They opted to leave Vandenbergh up there, spending most of his time at the back of the group, while the lead quickly went out.

Then they changed their minds, but not until the gap was 1-40, at the second crossing of the Kemmelberg. Omega started pacing the peloton, aided by Katusha. Then, when Debusschere punctured and lost his place in the first group, Lotto started helping too.

The race was now a battle of willpower. With Bazayev having been tailed off too, there were 11 riders at the front, all except Vandenbergh contributing to the effort in a smoothly-rotating paceline. Behind, a similar number of Omega, Lotto, Katusha and Blanco domestiques were chasing.

The stalemate lasted 30 kilometres. The lead was 1-19 at 40 kilometres. 1-30 at 30 kilometres, 1-30 at 20 kilometres. 1-20 at 10 kilometres. There was nothing to choose between the group and the peloton in terms of strength and motivation, but it was a question of who would blink first.

The lead finally started coming down in the final 10 kilometres. As the break turned into a strong headwind for the final stretch of straight road east to Wevelgem, its members started thinking about themselves, rather than each other and their momentum dropped noticeably. The peloton started carving huge chunks from the lead. Bodnar was dropped, leaving 10 riders, and 10 different teams, at the front.

Vandenbergh finally woke up with just under five kilometres to go, attacking hard, but all he did was set up Sagan. It was a mark of how strong Sagan’s attack was that with four kilometres to go, the peloton was only 30 seconds in arrears, but two kilometres later, the gap had gone back out to 40 seconds.

Behind Sagan, Bozic won the sprint for second, ahead of Van Avermaet, while the rest of the race must have pondered the wisdom of ever allowing Sagan off the front in the first place. Nobody’s ever doubted Sagan’s strength. Today he started adding tactical finesse to his racing. It’s a formidable combination.

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