Why didn't you win?

By now, you’ve seen Peter Sagan’s post-Het Nieuwsblad interview with Sporza's Renaat Schotte. If you haven’t, you should. It’s pretty funny, though Schotte has my deepest sympathies as someone who has interviewed Sagan a few times. Viral goldmine aside, the interview elicited a response from some fans online that I’ve seen a few times now and always found odd.

To recap, Schotte first asked Sagan if he thought going wide in the final corner cost him the win in the three-up sprint with Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. Van Avermaet took the inside line and won, just as he did the year before. Sagan took the turn wide and finished second, just as he did the year before. As Sagan later pointed out, “it was like copy paper from last year.”

But rather than give insight on the race in his response, Sagan gave Renaat a one-word answer—"No"—and then stood back to enjoy the uncomfortable silence he created.

Schotte regrouped, noting that Sagan had gone really wide and asking if he’d had some problems.

Sagan opened up a bit, telling Schotte, “I don’t know. Not every day I can win, right?”

Sagan then continued that he’d done a lot of work earlier, then simply didn’t have the legs to beat Van Avermaet in the final. Fair enough.

Sagan’s evasiveness, effectively stuffing Sporza’s veteran man-on-the-scene with a one-word answer, delighted fans. Rightfully so. It was funny, not the usual good-lord-willing-just-want-to-win-some-ballgames response. But then something else happened.

Perhaps because of the way Sagan answered—“not every day I can win”—Schotte’s question morphed in some fans’ minds (and on their twitter feeds) into Schotte asking Sagan why he didn’t win.

“Why didn’t you win?” would be a poorly phrased or stupid post-race question, depending on how charitable or uncharitable you felt like being. And as the video made the rounds, many fans took the opportunity to reflect on just what a stupid question it was for Schotte to ask. But that wasn’t the question. And it rarely if ever is, no matter how badly social media and cycling forums want it to be.

Schotte’s initial question—whether Sagan thought going wide had cost him a win—was perfectly valid. Small mistakes and miscalculations cost riders wins all the time. Ask Caleb Ewan. People watching the broadcast had already seen the sprint. We know Sagan didn’t win. We also know that riders can’t win every day. But it’s the reporter’s job to add detail and context to the day's winning and losing, which is exactly what Schotte was doing by asking an informed, pointed question about a very specific portion of the race. Not asking, broadly, why didn’t you win. And he was trying to get that detail and context from the only person who would know with certainty what happened in those split seconds. That’s what reporting is.

Schotte’s mistake, if you really need to find one, was phrasing his question in a way that lent itself to a yes or no answer. (Trust me. I’ve opened that door for Sagan before.) Ultimately, though painfully, Schotte did get the insight he was looking for: No, Sagan did not think that going wide in the sprint cost him the race. He did a lot of work early on, and he didn’t have the legs.

Schotte then moved on to ask Sagan if he was having a health problem, specifically if he had a stomach bug.  

Sagan: “No, I don’t think so, why?”

Schotte: “Because they told me a couple of moments ago.”

Sagan rose to the occasion, making it seem like an odd question from Schotte. “I think it’s normal for people to go on the toilet or not,” Sagan replied before going on to address the stomach bug question. “No, it’s no problem. It’s OK.”

Again, this was not Schotte asking “why didn’t you win?” He followed up on a report—given to him by the team’s press officer, per a later tweet—that the world’s best classics rider was having a health issue during the first race of the cobbled classics season. That would be news. Not big, earth-shattering news, but in the context of the bike race you just watched and those to come, it matters if the race favorite, the world champion, the guy who finished second, was shitting his pants the whole race or not. It is context. Detail. Knowing increases our understanding of what just happened, and finding out if things like that are true or not is what we pay reporters for.

While Schotte took his lumps online for his perceived why didn’t you win questioning, Sagan was dropping some of his own, turning interviewer himself during post-race studio time. Picking up the mike, he asked third-placed Vanmarcke, the weakest sprinter of the three, “Why you didn’t attack?”

This was an instant hit for any number of reasons. Because it was Sagan being Sagan. Because he was giving voice to what every fan was thinking in the last five kilometers. Because it was delivered in the Yakov Smirnoff-esque syntax and accent that Anglophones find hilarious coming from an eastern European. Because Sagan delivered it having lowered his studio chair until his chin was resting on the desk.

If a reporter had asked that, though, he’d be roasted on the straw-man spit of why didn’t you win. I’ve drafted some sample twitter responses, based on years of careful research:

  • Like it's that easy, idiot. Sagan and Van Avermaet are two of the strongest guys out there. 
  • Why didn’t he just attack?! Because he was already full gas, man. Dumb question.
  • Vanmarcke knows he couldn’t stay away from Van Avermaet + Sagan. Saving it for tomorrow. #KBK
  • When was the last time *you* rode the final of a classic?

But, honestly, it’s a legitimate question. And Vanmarcke’s response was interesting. “Because we said to go for a sprint.”

Now we know that there was, at least according to Vanmarcke, a stated agreement to keep working to stay ahead of the looming chase rather than play games, potentially be caught, and see the podium disappear. That, apparently, was the best deal Vanmarcke thought he could get with the legs he had and the situation he found himself in. We also know Sagan was apparently surprised that Vanmarcke stuck to the agreement. That’s all worth knowing.

If fans want to be overbroad in the name of throwing stones at the cycling media, then yes, I suppose every post-race interview question asked to everyone but the winner is, effectively, “Why didn’t you win?” That’s a pretty simplistic take, though.

Those questions don't always sound terribly insightful, especially when a reporter and a rider with two different native languages are trying to converse in a third. And often, the reporter already knows the answer. But the on-record answers to all those questions that get lumped under why didn’t you win—post-mortem questions about tactics, strength, health, state of mind—are what let us understand bike races more deeply than we can by just watching men and women ride bicycles on TV. They are what help us know what happened, rather than what we assume happened. If we stop asking them, or if riders stop answering them, we lose resolution.

Does all this mean I have a problem with Sagan or his post-Omloop performance? Not at all. He is a godsend for a sport that desperately needs more personalities and fewer power profiles. He also carries off most of his pokes at the media with a sly wink, one that's a contrast to the sneer that has characterized similar efforts by other riders, notably Mark Cavendish. With Sagan, there’s mischief there, but not malice. And that makes all the difference.