Audacious as ever, Peter Sagan attacked over the top of the penultimate climb, slashed through the final corners and held off the charging peloton on Governor Street to win the UCI World Road Cycling Championships in Richmond, Virginia.
Zdenek Stybar (Czech Republic) got the ball rolling on Libby Hill, and Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium) kicked it further down the road on 23rd Street, but it was Sagan who scored the goal, attacking the descent in a compact aero tuck and rocketing through the corners to build an advantage that nobody could close on the final ascent to the finish.
Michael Matthews (Australia) took the field sprint for second with Ramunas Navardauskas (Lithuania) third.
“Yeah, I think it’s the biggest victory and I am very happy,” said Sagan. “I did a lot of sacrifice this last three weeks after the Vuelta. It’s unbelievable for me. I did just one attack, and I think it was the right attack.”
Sagan said the race was “very strange,” and making him a little bit “crazy.”
“I was waiting, waiting. Everybody had to be tired,” he said. “I gave all the energy I had. I was hoping for the last cobblestone climb and from there it was just gas it to the finish.”
A rueful Matthews was disappointed to see the gold ride away from him.
“I thought when there were three guys, Peter, [Greg] Van Avermaet, and [Edvald] Boasson Hagen, I thought they’d play games out front and not work together, and we would have been able to bring them back,” he said. “But I don’t think they got onto Sagan. And then they got onto the descent. And the way Sagan descends, not many people can follow.”
As for Navardauskas, he was simply trying to crack the top 10.
“I didn’t see when he attacked. I just tried to stay in the front,” he said. “But the second climb is really steep and hard. I just put my head down and went as hard as I could. I wasn’t thinking about victory or anything.”
Hometown favorite Ben King (USA) made it into a eight-man break that shot away from the gun and quickly took more than four minutes on a Dutch-patrolled peloton with 14 laps remaining in the 261.4km race in Richmond, Virginia.
With him were Conor Dunne, one of only two Irish riders in the race; Sergei Tvetcov (Romania); Carlos Alzate (Colombia); Andriy Khripta (Ukraine); Jesse Sergent (New Zealand); Ivan Stevic (Serbia); and Park Sung Baek (Korea).
Stevic flatted out of the break with just under 205km to go but quickly returned to the leaders. Behind, Tom Boonen (Belgium) flatted just before the ascent of Libby Hill, but he, too, returned quickly. And with 12 laps remaining it was status quo, with the gap hovering around three and a half minutes.
Germany and Belgium were queued up behind the Dutch as the laps ticked off. And then Poland came forward, too, for defending champion Michal Kwiatkowski.
With 10 to go the steam seemed to go out of the chase, with the Dutch dialing it back and the Poles coming forward as the bunch spread from curb to curb.
But soon the Dutch resumed control and the gap began coming down, slowly, with 150km and nine laps remaining.
First Park, then Khripta dropped out of the break. Behind, the Dutch dialed it back again and first the Germans, then the Norwegians stepped up.
Stevic was next to fade, with 117km to go. And with seven laps remaining there were just five men left out front. Behind, Belgium had taken an interest in affairs, joining the Dutch, German and Polish contingents at the front of the peloton.
Crash fractures chase
Then a crash split the peloton, with Daniel Oss (Italy) and Jean-Pierre Drucker (Luxembourg) both hitting the deck, and the front group accelerated to swallow the fading break. The second group soon rejoined, and it was one long line of riders roaring around the circuit with 90km remaining.
Lluis Mas (Spain) tried his luck on a descent, but no one went with him. Alex Dowsett (Great Britain) was next to have a dig, but couldn’t make it happen, and the Belgians came forward as the bunch headed toward another trip up Libby Hill.
Tom Boonen (Belgium) gave it some stick on the cobbled climb, marked by Tony Martin (Germany), and the pace ramped up considerably as the bunch headed for five laps to go. The Belgians gassed it again on 23rd Street, keeping the peloton strung out.
Robert Gesink (Netherlands) attacked up Governor Street, but made no headway. And with five laps to go the bunch remained together.
Next to go were Guilliame Boivin (Canada) and Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia). Kanstantsin Siutsou (Belarus) bridged to them, followed by Taylor Phinney (USA), and they built a lead of 40 seconds with 74km to go.
Behind, the Germans formed up on the front of the chase.
Phinney led the break up Libby Hill the next time around. Behind, Sep Vanmarcke (Belgium) punched it and opened a gap. Ian Stannard (Great Britain), Daniele Bennati (Italy) and Simon Geschke (Germany) followed, and it was four chasing four.
Or it was, until Pantano lost the wheel. That left a threesome out front.
The break rolled into four to go with the first chase at 30 seconds and the peloton right behind, driven by Australia.
The pace eased a bit then, giving the trio a bit of leash, and Gediminas Bagdonas (Lithuania) tried to bridge to the leaders. And then, another crash, this time in the feed zone, gave the break an extra bit of breathing room.
Phinney pushes on
Phinney led the break up Governor Street with the bunch reassembling at more than a minute behind. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain) attacked the chase, helping drive a wedge into the group again, and sat up to wait for the first group — which contained more than a few Spaniards — as they rode into three to go.
The bunch was having none of that and quickly closed down the first pursuit, then set out after the break.
As the escapees’ advantage dwindled the skies darkened and the promised rain finally began to fall. The Danish team shoved forward then and drove the chase toward Libby Hill, rapidly closing on the breakaway.
It was all back together as the race hit the foot of the cobbled climb, and Ben Swift led a British charge up Libby Hill with Kwiatkowski right behind.
Ian Stannard attacked next, thundering up 23rd Street, with Gesink in pursuit. Boonen was there, too, with Sagan, Kwiatkowski, Dani Moreno (Spain) and Bauke Mollema (Netherlands), who shot away on Governor Street.
Mollema didn’t stay alone for long. His move helped forge a new seven-man escape with two laps remaining: Mollema, Stannard, Moreno, Kwiatkowski, Boonen, Andrey Amador (Costa Rica) and Elia Viviani (Italy).
The Germans massed at the front as the gap stretched to 30 seconds with 25km to race. Ahead, Viviani began skipping his turns and sitting in.
Boonen led onto Libby Hill for the penultimate time, Kwiatkowski on his wheel. But the peloton was quickly on them, and a number of riders managed to leap across to the escapees going over the top — Van Avermaet, Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands), and Stybar among them.
Dumoulin jumped going into one to go. Vyacheslav Kuznetsov (Russia) joined him, and then Nelson Oliveira (Portugal) leaped across and went right on by. Pavel Bruitt (Russia) and Tanel Kangert (Estonia) joined up, too, but the peloton swept them all back up.
With 11km to go it seemed anybody’s race to win. The Italians and Australians began massing at the front.
Then Siutsou rolled the dice, joined by Tyler Farrar (USA), and the two took a small lead into the final 10km.
As the chase ate into their advantage, Farrar pressed the pace, while Siutsou struggled to follow. Behind, the Italians and French combined forces to chase the two down, catching them just before Libby Hill.
Farrar attacked one last time, but it was hopeless, and the Belgians, French, Italians and Dutch teams all drove toward the foot of the hill.
Stybar attacked at once and John Degenkolb (Germany) followed, as did Van Avermaet and Sagan, which had ridden a largely anonymous race up to that point.
Still, a sizable group remained together going over the top, perhaps two dozen riders with another group just behind.
Van Avermaet jumped on 23rd Street and Sagan followed. He took a small edge going over the top and shot down the other side, folding into a “super-tuck” and slicing through the left-hander at the bottom, using every inch of the road.
“From the last climb, it was still a long way to the finish,” he said. “The last 800m was very tough. It was far away, but I said I had made my move and I have to go. The best defense is attack.”
Sagan sailed around the final right-hander and drove into the final kilometer with a phenomenal gap over a chase led by Boasson Hagen, then began the final ascent of Governor Street. He took a quick look over his left shoulder to gauge the pursuit, then upshifted going into the final 600m and almost casually draped his arms over the bars, time trial style.
He eventually raised his arms, of course. That’s what a winner does.