Peter Sagan is the best rider of the current generation. It’s not just his Rainbow stripes that show this but his fantastic approach to racing, range of different victories, wonderful bike-handling and unmatched levels of consistency.
Nevertheless, there have been a number of high profile occasions where Sagan has been edged off the top step of the podium. When examining his conquerors you’ll find two names appear far more often than the others; Greg Van Avermaet and Michal Kwiatkowski.
No stranger to second place, Sagan seems to have stumbled across two riders capable of stopping him. Van Avermaet has long been thought of as a worthy rival whilst Kwiatkowski – who first raced Sagan as a junior in the 2007 Peace Race – has developed into somewhat of a bogey rider. Over the last few years we’ve seen Sagan outfoxed, overpowered, or simply forced into making a mistake.
Case Study 1: Strade Bianche, 2014
What happened: Sagan put in an impressive attack from a group of race favourites distancing many big names including Fabian Cancellara. The 23-year old Kwiatkowski was the only rider able to follow his wheel and the pair worked well to open up a lead of over 60 seconds. The Slovakian attacked inside the final kilometre but Kwiatkowski closed the gap before moving away into a solo lead. On the slopes to the Piazza del Campo Sagan looked a beaten man.
Verdict: Sagan lit up the race but probably underestimated the final climb. Kwiatkowski simply had more left in the tank.
Case Study 2: Tour de France Stage 13, 2015
What happened: Sagan roared into the 2015 Tour finishing in the top three spots on five of the first six road stages. Stage 13 to Rodez presented him with a great chance to end his streak of near-misses. It was tougher than those in the first week and Sagan was thought of as the fastest finisher able to survive. On the kick-up to the finish Van Avermaet freed himself from the bunch with a powerful blast. Sagan dug deep to stay in touch and was a heavy stage favourite when the road flattened out. To everybody’s surprise, Van Avermaet won the two-man sprint.
Verdict: As Sagan rolled over the finish line he looked shattered. He had been taken to his limit on the final drag.
Case Study 3: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 2016
What happened: In the opening spring classic of 2016, Sagan and Van Avermaet broke away from the peloton with Tiesj Benoot and Luke Rowe. Sagan was feared as the fastest finisher but the threat of the looming chasers meant the finish was always going be tactical. As the group entered the closing moments Van Avermaet made a decisive move and Sagan struggled to catch his wheel. The big Belgian proved uncatchable once again.
Verdict: This one can be chalked up to Van Avermaet’s brilliance. He timed his sprint perfectly and had more than enough to hold off Sagan.
Case Study 4: E3 Harelbeke, 2016
What happened: Sagan and old foe Kwiatkowski slipped away from a group of all the race favourites. They worked well together once again and entering the close stages they knew it was going to be a two-man battle. Sagan was clearly the faster but Kwiatkowski anticipated this and made a surprise move with over 500m to go. The World Champion was clearly caught out and could only watch as Kwiatkowski sailed away for victory.
Verdict: Kwiatkowski knows what it takes to beat a rider like Sagan and gambled on an early move. Sagan – usually so alert – was outfoxed with the finish line in sight.
Case Study 5: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 2017
What happened: Van Avermaet successfully defended his Omloop title by once again beating Sagan into second. The two had followed a race-splitting attack by Sep Vanmarcke and it was the Cannondale rider who launched an ambitious final sprint Van Avermaet was first to respond and easily moved round Vanmarcke with a great surge. Sagan chased him home but was never able to get on terms.
Verdict: Sagan never looks his fastest in the early part of the season and he was plainly beaten by Van Avermaet on this occasion.
Case Study 6: Milan – San Remo, 2017
What happened: Attempting to win in marvellous style, Sagan launched a late attack on the Poggio. Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe were able to follow and Sagan towed them down the descent and into a race-winning lead. Sagan was favourite entering the Via Roma and launched an early sprint from the head of the race. He opened up a gap but soon tired. Kwiatkowski tucked in behind his back wheel before edging round for a narrow victory.
Verdict: As good as Kwiatkowski was, Sagan will be kicking himself for launching so early. He underestimated the Pole’s power and fell apart with the finish line in sight.
About the Author: Mike Franchetti owns the site www.justprocycling.com, producing race previews, top five lists and rider profiles, as well as tweeting predictions and other nonsense off @justprocycling.