Peter Sagan's Bora-Hansgrohe team hopes to play different cards in the classics, saying that it's not just about the world champion. The team tried in Friday's E3 Harelbeke with Lukas Pöstlberger as Sagan was ruled out by an untimely crash.
The German WorldTour team scrambled when its Slovakian star missed the winning move with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and fell in a crash with 43 kilometres to race. He was unable to ride his bike immediately after the incident and failed to re-join the pack, which climbed the Paterberg and raced away.
Bora's black team cars arrived to the bus before Sagan, who cut through the crowds of Belgians in his rainbow jersey 10 minutes later. He would not talk.
"With Lukas Pöstlberger, which no one knows, placing fifth, that's a big exclamation mark for us," Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Jens Zemke said.
"The team is not only about one person, also someone else can jump in. Marcus Burghardt was riding strongly, the whole team.
“We tried to support Peter, but if he had a crash in a very bad moment with no team car behind, then yeah, it's over for him."
Tall Belgian Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r La Mondiale) fell fast and hard on the cement roads nearing the Paterberg climb. Sagan, unable to avoid him, crashed in his wake.
The television cameras switched back to the leaders immediately. Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) led Van Avermaet, the eventual winner, up the cobbled and steep Paterberg climb.
Sky's Luke Rowe still tried to fight for his position marked by Matteo Trentin for Quick-Step team-mate Gilbert. Viewers assumed the world champion had returned to the group, but his bike suffered more in the crash than he had.
"Peter's OK. It was a bit of bad luck for him, he crashed, he had a problem with his bike, and then it was over. He was standing for three or four minutes where we had the deviation for the team cars, so at that point, it was over for him. We couldn't do anything," continued Zemke.
"He had to continue, but the gears weren't working anymore after the crash, then the Paterberg starts. We were waiting on the downhill, gave him a new bike, or tried, but he said, 'No, I'll continue on this one.' It was hopeless. It took too long.
"We were physically motivated and hot, but if someone crashes ahead of you then you have no chance."
Bora-Hansgrohe's 25-year-old Austrian Lukas Pöstlberger luckily made the early move. The attention turned to him when Sagan struggled due to the crash. However, he lacked the power to match stars like Olympic Champion Van Avermaet.
The crash and team tactics expose Bora's problem: one star with few other options. Quick-Step, in case something went wrong with Gilbert, was able to rely Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin behind. BMC Racing counted on Daniel Oss.
At the finish, Sagan refused to look to waiting journalists and climbed immediately on the bus. He only exited for the anti-doping control.
The team will travel to their hotel, where focus will turn to Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday and the other races ahead. The idea is that Sagan's sheer power should prevail sooner or later.
"We are in the beginning of this campaign, we have Ghent-Wevelgem, we have the Tour of Flanders, we have Scheldeprijs... There is a lot of racing coming. Paris-Roubaix... So, I think that now we have the bad luck behind us and we can look forward," added Zemke
"You bring it on the point!" he added when it was pointed out that Sagan took revenge in Ghent-Wevelgem last year after losing E3 Harelbeke to Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski. "Revenge? Yes, of course."
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