You know the old maxim: if you fail, try, try and try again? It needs clarification for professional cycling and Peter Sagan because failure has such an unequivocal ring to it. In his many previous Classics near misses, Sagan did not fail outright, he simply failed to win when within striking distance. Second, third or fourth places were the norm. He was either marked out of races by smarter rivals or made foolish, impetuous decisions himself. Despite all this, he never stopped trying or sacrificed his attacking instinct.
This year’s Tour of Flanders showed how far the Tinkoff star has come as both a rider and a human being. The tactical kinks have been ironed out and the faux pas have flown the coop.
Undoubtedly, the pressure was on. It was becoming a mystery how the sport’s biggest one-day races continued to elude its biggest raw talent. Everything from the strength of his Tinkoff team to his tactics and stamina were scrutinised. And of all the Classics over the years, the Tour of Flanders has been a big albatross round his neck: Sagan was fifth in 2012, second in 2013, fourth in 2015, regularly left with far too much to do as the hunter.
When Sagan made his move with Michal Kwiatkowski and Sep Vanmarcke 30 kilometres from the finish, he had more to lose than Cancellara and the Team Sky rider, who had strong reinforcements behind. Yet he rightly gambled on the importance of pre-empting the Swiss before his traditional Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg stomp. Sagan is not too strong for tactics, as one website suggested post-race; he just clinically picked the right ones.
An older rider might have waited with Cancellara. Surely there’s only so many times you can throw all your chips into the middle and lose, like Sagan has. It would have been easy for recent near misses – like the GP E3-Harelbeke and Het Nieuwsblad, when he arguably did too much and paid the price – to play on his mind. Ironically, it took a certain naivety, a factor which has contributed to a few of his defeats, to take that risk.
From then on, body language showed who was in control. Even making the turn onto the Paterberg, he languidly took a bike length on Vanmarcke. You could tell the Belgian was near breaking point. As he impotently thrashed away out of the saddle like a drowning man on the berg’s upper reaches, Sagan zipped away in the saddle.
After that final climb, Vanmarcke and Cancellara got to within ten seconds of the leader. But their backs rocked and rolled, their knuckles probably turning white from the death grip on the drops.
In contrast, the world champion, steady as a rock, was draped over his bars and pedalled with the insouciance of a man leaning on a fourth-floor balcony, regarding a sunset. He was not going to be caught – and he knew it.
Compare all this to the 2013 edition. Then, it was Fabian Cancellara breaking Sagan’s heart and stretching his lead all the way into Oudenaarde. Afterwards, the Slovakian kid made the post-race headlines for the wrong reasons, pinching a podium girl’s bottom on the podium. Yesterday, it was a man who wheelied for five seconds after winning then dedicated his victory to Antoine Demoitié and Daan Myngher, who both tragically lost their lives last weekend: the perfect mix of cool and class.
Despite five years at the top of the sport, the Slovakian is still only 26 years old. We could be calling him Peter Pan, but that implies he’s the boy who never grows up.
Instead, we – and he – may view the 2016 Tour of Flanders as the turning point. Peter Sagan has come of age, losing the foolishness but keeping the audacity and fun factor. If the World Championships win was a step in the right direction, the Tour of Flanders, seat of some of his big past failures, is the confirmation.