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OVERIJSE, Belgium (VN) — Peter Sagan (Cannondale) may have started the day with an apology, but there were no apologies on the short final climb of the Schavei, just a hundred meters shy of the finish of Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, the final tune-up before the Ardennes classics kick off with Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. Sagan answered the one-two final punch of BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert with a decidedly unapologetic surge for which there was no answer; the 23 year-old Slovak stole what had appeared to be a very likely BMC victory by a couple of tire widths.
For Sagan, it was a win in spite of an imperfect day. His Cannondale squad controlled the pace and kept him largely secure during the quiet, early out-and-back loop across Brussels’ southern suburbs, but was largely absent after two hard trips around the 23-kilometer finishing circuit in Overijse.
When Van Avermaet attacked with 18km to go, Gilbert tight on his wheel, Sagan was forced to cover the attack alone, leaving him isolated, and vulnerable to the very one-two jab he managed to parry in the race’s final moments. If there were any questions about Sagan’s preparation ahead of the Ardennes before today, he dispelled them in his explosive, trademark style.
“Today it was a strange race,” he told the press afterwards. “There was a break, always attacks. On the last lap, we joined the break with Gilbert, [Sylvain] Chavanel. Philippe had an advantage because he had a teammate, and two [Omega] riders. I was alone. I came here today to try my legs, to understand how I feel. I felt very good. I’m happy for this win.”
In fact, said Sagan, he had come to Wednesday’s race to answer his own questions about his form, not to win. But when the door opened on the loopy, twisting hills of Flemish Brabant, he could not resist walking through.
“I thought, ‘[the win is] not my objective, not to race for the win,’” he said. “But when the two riders attacked, I said, ‘now it’s time to go’. The others weren’t working with me, so I tried to go to the front and to see how it went on the last climb.”
And, indeed, he also admitted that in being drawn into the fight, he may have burned a few matches he had planned to keep in the box for Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race in the nearby Limburg region of the Netherlands. But Wednesday’s 200km parcours, packed with 25 steep, short climbs seemed tailor-made for a puncheur like Sagan, and it would be hard to imagine one of cycling’s most aggressive riders simply sitting up while the world champion powered away.
On his prospects for Sunday’s race, 50 kilometers longer and featuring a good deal more climbing, Sagan told the press he wasn’t certain.
“It’s hard to [predict] because maybe I used too much energy today,” he said. “For sure, this race was a good try.”
Sagan was third at the Amstel Gold Race a year ago behind Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol).
Gilbert himself said in post-race interviews on Wednesday that he thought Amstel’s extra length would benefit him and perhaps prove difficult for less experienced riders like Sagan. And the Cannondale rider seemed to agree that Gilbert would be more dangerous in the coming week, when he starts Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, than he was today.
“Philippe is a big rider, he knows what he needs to do to come into condition for Amstel, Flèche and Liège,” said Sagan. “He’ll be stronger there. Me? I don’t know. I don’t know how strong I will be.”
Still, it would be hard to imagine Sagan, who added that he skipped Paris-Roubaix specifically to focus on his preparation for next week’s races, not being part of the battle. And, he hoped, so would his team. Key lieutenants Damiano Caruso and Moreno Moser are coming off of a team training camp at altitude, and focused today on adjusting to riding at race pace rather than delivering their leader to a win.
But perhaps Sagan’s reluctance to place himself ahead of the world champion on the favorites list for Amstel was part of a broader effort to rein in his more puckish impulses. Sagan appeared genuinely embarrassed about the reproachful reaction to his podium antics following the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and his apology to Maja Leye at the race sign-in this morning seemed genuine as well. In victory he seemed toned-down as well: he simply raised his arms in the air, no wheelie, running man, or bicep flexing.
And if Sagan is cultivating a more low-key image, his downplaying of his chances on Sunday is likely part of the restraint. Sagan stood on the podium at last year’s edition, and surely has no plans to take a step back. They give the same beer to everybody on the podium at Amstel — a fact that Sagan noted in his post-race interview today — and he no doubt noticed that his third-place bottle nonetheless was not quite as sweet as the bottle on the top step.