I am going to start this article with a confession. I am very obviously not a professional cyclist. The genetic gifts and unparallelled motivation which allow the athletes we love to climb the Koppenberg and steam through the Arenberg Forest at the speed of lightning are qualities I do not possess, and therefore I am very clearly ignorant of the knowledge possessed by the people who will be doing those things in the course of the mercifully upcoming cobbles season. I am acutely aware that all of this makes me very unqualified to say how these races ought to unfold.
I've just got something to say, and it it this: Does anybody actually think that the strength of their team will help them win races this year? A strong chase couldn't help anyone catch Sagan in Milano-Sanremo, and will not be able to do that in any race in cobbles season. I can tell you these particular things about the cobbled races coming up.
- In each of them, Peter Sagan will pretty certainly attack. He's attacked in Omloop. He's attacked in Kuurne. He's attacked in Milano-Sanremo. He attacked to win his first rainbow jersey. He attacked to win Flanders last year. Clearly in his opinion, the best method he can employ in order to win is not to keep his powder dry for a sprint, but fully expose that powder in order to drop enough people to win. It's not a tactic I want to comment on just yet,
- In some of them, Peter Sagan will arrive at the finish line with people who can outsprint him or have outsprinted him. I include in this group Matteo Trentin, Greg Van Avermaet, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb and perhaps Arnaud Démare, Tom Boonen and Edward Theuns. It's becoming a simple fact now that some of the sting goes out of Sagan's legs at the end of a difficult race, leaving him vulnerable in a sprint. For this I cite Milano-Sanremo 2017, 2014 and 2013, E3 Harelbeke 2016, the last two editions of Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico stage 6 in 2016, in which he was outsprinted by Michał Kwiatkowski twice, Greg Van Avermaet three times and Gerald Ciolek, alone once and as part of a group of nine riders again.
- In all of them, a team will miss the move and start chasing him down. Take Kuurne for example: BMC missed the move with an evidently strong Van Avermaet, and spent the last twenty kilometres flaying themselves futilely on the front.
I think that Omloop and Kuurne are very good races to study to see how the upcoming races might work out. We learn from Omloop that Sagan on his own is scarily strong, strong enough to pull a group practically single-handedly away from a peloton, and we learn from Kuurne that if he doesn't have to do that, he can win a sprint.
So here's the constant: If you want to beat Sagan, you have to be alert, and you can't bluff. You can't put all your team in colour formation on the front and pull him back, because he alone is stronger than three or four of your best guys. He proved that in Omloop and he can prove it again. You can't even put your second or third strongest guy in the move and hold your cards to your chest, because frankly, when Sagan goes, he's not coming back. Quickstep can't do what they have done for the past two year now and leave their guys scattered in the peloton to miss the move. They have to avoid all posturing, figure out which one of them is the strongest, and glue that guy to Sagan's wheel, because in all likelihood that's their only chance of getting their first result since a race in which Sebastian Langeveld, Bradley Wiggins, Thor Hushovd and Sebastien Turgot played large parts.
I don't even think it will be impossible for them to employ those tactics. Matteo Trentin is a fabulous rider but I don't think that he was the next-strongest, or even close to next-strongest in Kuurne. However, he was capable of reaching Sagan's group to play a role in the finale, even if that role was smaller than he, and certainly I, expected. Sagan will not be making attacks equal to the one he made on the Poggio in E3 or Gent-Wevelgem.
So then, it's my opinion that there's only one way to beat Sagan. Potential challengers must follow his attacks with only the fastest riders when they go — chasing on the front will be useful only to DS's trying to punish the riders who have missed yet another move. Then do as little work as possible, or the ensuing sprint will be lost — the chances are anyone who follows Sagan will have teammates better able to follow up a move that is caught if he sits up in frustration. Finally, pray he can be beaten in a sprint, as history says he can.
I realise extremely acutely that there are at least two problems with this argument. The first of these is that any rider who did anything approaching what I'm suggesting would be derided for cynicism: Sagan himself has been quoted for saying " The result is important but so is putting on a show for the fans" after Sanremo on Saturday, and anyone doing what I consider correct would be doing the opposite of that. Secondly, my opinion on race tactics can't be well-considered enough - I've never ridden the races. Sagan might drop everyone or outsprint everyone. Quickstep might just be blown off the wheel, or Sagan might get tired of leading a group for kilometres on end. He is the strongest. Will he win?