Only Van Avermaet and Naesen could follow as Sagan looked for a smoother line just beside the cobblestones.

After taking himself out of two classics in a row, Sagan’s spring campaign hinges on Paris-Roubaix

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One moment, Peter Sagan was in good position, looking strong, and headed for the podium — or more. The next, through his own actions, he’d removed himself from the equation.

This was the scenario at the Tour of Flanders last weekend, when Sagan skirted the cobblestones on the Oude Kwaremont, instead of riding the soft shoulder at the edge of the barriers, and hooked his handlebar onto a spectator’s jacket, sending him to the ground.

But this was also the scenario at Gent-Wevelgem, when Sagan, clearly annoyed, swung out of the rotation, creating a standoff with Niki Terpstra and marking each other out of the fight for the victory.

Together, that makes two cobbled classics in a row where Sagan, consciously or unconsciously, took himself out of the running for the win.

Peter Sagan’s crash on the Kwaremont caused Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R) to also go down, dashing any last hope of catching eventual winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).

And while Gent-Wevelgem mattered less — it was his choice; he’s won it twice already; it’s not a Monument — the Flanders mistake was massive.

Still only 27, Sagan is a versatile rider of epic proportions, capable of winning cobbled classics, green jerseys, field sprints, and world championships. But the Spring Classics have proven frustrating for the Slovakian. He has finished in the top five at Milan-San Remo on four occasions, without a win. He’d been in the top five at Flanders three times before winning last year. And at Roubaix, he’s only cracked the top 10 once, in 2014, when he was sixth out of an unusually large front group on day with a strong headwind.

Now, with no major victory this year — yes, he won Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, a 1.HC semi-classic — Sagan heads to Paris-Roubaix, the biggest objective of his spring campaign, seeking redemption at the Queen of the Classics.

Sagan raced Wednesday at Scheldeprijs, hammering on the front late in the race before swinging out of the bunch inside the final kilometers to avoid the field-sprint chaos, his training day complete. After the race, he wrote on Twitter that he didn’t feel well, and that he hoped his form would turn around for Roubaix.

And though he’s performed well this spring— second at San Remo, second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, third at Gent-Wevelgem — a classics season without a WorldTour victory would be a disappointment for the world champion. Sagan is hunting for Monuments, and there’s only one left on his 2017 race schedule.

new and inventive ways to lose

You can forgive Sagan if he hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. There’s not shortage of debate, but the fact remains — Sagan took a risk, riding so close to the barriers in order to ride a faster line over the cobbled Oude Kwaremont. It was he who clipped a jacket draped over a barrier; he was moving, the jacket, and barrier, was not. The jacket did not reach out and grab his handlebar. He took the risk, and ultimately, surprisingly, paid the price.

Sagan has admitted as much, taking responsibility for the race-changing incident. “It was my fault,” he said directly after finishing. “I was close to the barriers. I was in control when I was close to the barriers, but I think we caught a jacket or something.”

Part of what was so shocking is that Sagan rarely, if ever, makes bike-handling mistakes as he did on the Kwaremont. His wheel is one of the most trusted in the bunch; if it’s known as dangerous, that’s only in the sense that most riders can’t match his finesse. Bora-Hansgrohe team management reported that Sagan was relieved when he saw video, shot by a spectator, of him snagging the jacket — conclusive evidence of what had happened. Before that, his confidence was rattled.

All riders make mistakes; Sagan less so — particularly when the stakes are so high.

One weekend earlier, at Gent-Wevelgem, Sagan played poker with Terpstra and the whole of the Quick-Step team, and willingly took himself out of the win.

That he was willing to risk losing to make a statement — “If you race only to make sure I don’t win, I’ll make sure you don’t win, either” — was, in some ways, admirable. Fabian Cancellara faced the same dilemma during his career; see Johan Vansummeren’s 2011 Paris-Roubaix victory, when his Garmin teammate Thor Hushovd was glued to Cancellara’s wheel.

At Gent-Wevelgem, Sagan initiated a game of chicken, and he didn’t blink. And while that was perhaps understandable, given how San Remo played out, when Sagan made the winning move, did the bulk of the work, and was out sprinted by Michal Kwiatkowski.

Peter Sagan was critical of Niki Terpstra at Gent-Wevelgem.

But perhaps the timing of Sagan’s “message” was off. At Gent-Wevelgem, he put his foot down just before the two hardest one-day races in pro cycling; Flanders and Roubaix. It’s far less common for riders to sit on over the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo, or through Carrefour de l’Arbre, than in the final, paved, 15km of Gent-Wevelgem. (Obviously a strong headwind can change all that at Roubaix, as it did in 2014, when Tersptra soloed to victory in front of a group of 10 riders that included Sagan.)

The lesson Sagan hoped to teach Quick-Step may or may not have been appropriate for the situation of that race — though many have argued that Sagan lost more than Tersptra, who was never going to win from that group — but in reality it was a lesson he meant to be applied moving forward.

We never fully saw how team tactics might have developed at Flanders; Terpstra was dropped before Sagan crashed, taking down Greg Van Avermaet and Olivier Naesen, which, in turn, guaranteed that Tersptra’s teammate, Philippe Gilbert, would hold his lead to the line; the amount of time Van Avermaet lost to the crash was comparable to Gilbert’s winning time.

Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix will no doubt be a demonstration of force from Quick-Step, looking to set up Tom Boonen for a record fifth victory in his final professional race. Terpstra, Stybar, and Yves Lampaert — all potential podium finishers — will all be dedicated to bringing Boonen a victory.

No matter how strong the team, that can be a dangerous strategy (see Team GB at the 2012 Olympic road race in London). Sagan would be wise to stick close to Tommeke; Boonen will not be riding solely to make sure Sagan doesn’t win. Easier said than done, but a trip together through the velodrome would almost certainly mean a Sagan victory.

Sagan’s team, by comparison, is capable, but only just. He’ll be supported by his brother Juraj, Maciej Bodnar, Marcus Burghardt, Michael Kolar, Aleksejs Saramotins, Andreas Schillinger and Rudiger Selig.

This time, the writing is on the wall. This may be the most straightforward Roubaix that Sagan will ever face. Quick-Step will control the race. Boonen will attack across the cobbles. There are no games to play. There will be spectators, and there will be loose jackets, but Sagan has surely learned that lesson.

Sagan was strongest at Milan-San Remo. He may have been strongest at Gent-Wevelgem, and perhaps again at Flanders. But over the past two Sundays, he found new and inventive ways to lose, and he’s proven that being the strongest rider in the pro peloton can be both a blessing and a curse.

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