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The 115th edition of Paris–Roubaix was in a state of flux. Almost 180 kilometers had been covered, including the first 13 sectors of pavé—the French name for the dreaded cobblestones of northern France that are bigger, less smooth and more uneven than those in Flanders. Having split on the gnarly sector through the Forest of Arenberg, the peloton was cut into several slices. Peter Sagan was in the first small group, which didn’t include co-race favorite Tom Boonen or any of the Belgian’s Quick-Step teammates.
Sensing an opportunity to put Boonen’s men on the back foot, even though there were still 78 kilometers and 16 pavé sectors to go, Sagan accelerated on a long section of smooth tarmac with his longtime Polish teammate Maciej Bodnar. They were joined by a former teammate, Italian Daniel Oss, now one of Greg Van Avermaet’s lieutenants at BMC Racing, and the young Belgian hope Jasper Stuyven, who was covering the move for his Trek-Segafredo team leader John Degenkolb.
Over the next 5 kilometers, pushed by a tailwind, the foursome sped back onto another dusty section of cobblestones and pushed their lead to a significant 30 seconds. Behind, Boonen was forced to go to the front of the chase group and set a fierce tempo himself. Right then, with the classic taking a decisive turn, Sagan’s rear tire suddenly deflated. He managed to stay upright but had to stop and get a new rear wheel from the Mavic service motorcycle accompanying him. His first opportunistic move had ended.
Sagan again took the initiative on the day’s second toughest section of pavé, at Mons-en-Pévèle, with 48 kilometers to go. Over the 3 kilometers of bone-jarring cobblestones, his forceful charge cut the lead for Oss and Stuyven from 48 seconds to 24 seconds; but rival Zdenek Stybar and the Czech’s leader, Boonen, closely marked the world champion and he again eased off the gas where the cobbles turned back to tarmac.
All of the front dozen riders soon regrouped and caught Oss—who then took off again, chased by three others. Then, with 34 kilometers remaining, Sagan made what looked like the race’s winning move when he dropped the Boonen/Van Avermaet group and raced solo across a widening gap to the chasing trio on the short pavé sector at Templeuve—where the Moulin-de-Vertain windmill was decorated with a rainbow banner and the one word: “Merci”…in Sagan’s honor perhaps.
Right after, with Sagan riding strongly with Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld (who would both finish on the podium) and quickly gaining on Oss, the Slovak had another rear puncture–on the wheel he’d received from neutral service 40 kilometers earlier. This wheel change was slower and it took him 5 kilometers to chase back; but by that point Van Avermaet (the future winner) and two others had already jumped ahead to the trio Sagan had been with. The world champion was stuck. He had tried everything to win a monument that he seems destined to win, but was thwarted at every opportunity.
Images: Chris Auld
Words: John Wilcockson