Peter Sagan makes it look easy, even when it’s not.
There was nothing pre-destined about Sagan’s victory Sunday, or in winning an unprecedented third straight men’s world road race title. But it turned out just as many predicted.
The flamboyant Slovakian plucked victory out of the jaws of what looked to be a missed opportunity. After riding almost imperceptibly in the bunch, Sagan burst to the fore in the closing 800 meters. He swept through the final corners in perfect position, and spoiled Alexander Kristoff’s dream finale.
“In the last 5km, I said to myself it was already done. It’s gone,” Sagan said. “Then it changed in the front.”
With a perfectly timed bike throw, Sagan created a club of one. Now boasting three world titles in a row, Sagan writes a page in cycling’s history books he’ll have to his own.
With rainbow jersey No. 3, Sagan joins some special company. Only four riders — Eddy Merckx, Oscar Freire, Alfredo Binda, and Rik Van Steenbergen — have won three elite men’s world championship titles.
No one’s won three in a row. Call it the Sagan Sweep.
“There are a lot of races in a year, but this one is special,” Sagan said. “You need luck. It’s like a lottery.”
Sagan, of course, has the motor and instincts to create his own luck.
Last year in Qatar, Sagan already became a member of the “repeat” club, joining Georges Ronsse (1928-29), Van Steenbergen (1956-57), Rik Van Loy (1960-61), Gianni Bugno (1991-92), and Paolo Bettini (2006-07) as the only riders who successfully defended their world title.
Until the final frenetic moments Sunday, Sagan’s treble treat wasn’t looking likely. Italy took control of the final laps, and solo fliers such as Julian Alaphilippe and Magnus Cort, the latter who was swept up with 500m to go, looked to disrupt the sprint-finale script that Sagan was counting on.
“Maybe it was karma that I won,” Sagan said. “It was a very unpredictable race.”
Sagan’s treble is extraordinary on many levels.
First off, the worlds road race is one of the most hotly contested races of the season. Everyone comes to win, and Sagan typically races at a numerical disadvantage to larger racing nations. There are never gifts during the worlds.
Second, each worlds course is different. Every circuit presents its unique challenges and difficulties, so it’s rare for a rider to be able to adapt to such variety year after year.
Sagan, as everyone knows, is no ordinary rider.
On Sunday, Sagan confirmed yet again his versatility and ability to react even when the odds are stacked against him.
In Richmond in 2015, he was “Super Sagan,” powering away from an elite field in the closing kilometers to win all alone in the finish-line photograph. The victory elevated Sagan into the upper ranks of the peloton’s hierarchy.
Last year on the desert flats of Qatar, he was the last rider to bridge across to the winning group after the Belgians fractured the peloton in the desert crosswinds. He later uncorked an incredible sprint to beat Tom Boonen and sprinter ace Mark Cavendish. It was an unlikely victory on a course made for pure sprinters.
Norway saw a different Sagan on Sunday. He stayed hidden away on the undulating, technical course for much of the action. The race blew up on Salmon Hill, and he took advantage of the work from the Italians to bring back dangerous attacks from Alaphilippe and Cort. In fact, with two laps to go, Eurosport announcers were saying Sagan was not even in the front group; a testament to just how cagey Sagan was playing it.
You didn’t see Slovakia’s white and blue jersey near the front until the final 800m. Always the expert bike-handler, Sagan positioned himself perfectly on Kristoff’s wheel through the two final sweeping turns. When the Norwegian jumped, Sagan pounced off the wheel, and Michael Matthews slammed his fist in frustration when he couldn’t follow the explosion. Sagan won with a perfectly executed bike throw.
“Every [worlds] victory is special,” he said. “The first one was not expected, and for sure the second was not. This one was harder because it was unpredictable. You have just one shot in your legs in this kind of race.”
The rainbow treble is unprecedented in 84 editions of the men’s road worlds.
Other double-to-triple efforts fell short. Ronsse came closest, winning bronze in 1930 after winning back-to-back titles. Even the great Merckx won three, but he never doubled. Freire was the modern peloton’s Mr. Worlds, winning three titles within a six-year span.
What does Sagan’s world’s treble tell us?
First, he’s an extraordinary rider in international one-day events. As Cavendish said last year, Sagan could win another “two or three worlds” because he has the ability to sprint out of a reduced group after six-plus hours of racing. The past two world titles have proven that.
International competition, at both the worlds and Olympic levels, also tips in Sagan’s favor due to the team dynamics. On the professional circuit, the dominance of a few major teams often skews the outcome. Racing on national teams dilutes that dominance, allowing riders like Sagan and his natural individual prowess to have more ability to shine.
Fans should feel privileged. With Sagan, we’re enjoying arguably one of the best one-day classics riders in history. We frolic in his say antics and rock star persona, but at his core, Sagan is a bike racer born to win. And with Cavendish as one of history’s best sprinters and Chris Froome as the generational leader in grand tours, the peloton today is replete with riders who will stand the test of time.
How many more can Sagan win? Next year’s climb-heavy course in Austria, on paper at least, looks too hard for Sagan. Strange things can happen on circuit courses, however, so don’t count out the four-sweep just yet.
As one Twitter observer wrote, “Sagan’s rainbow jersey curse is trying to get rid of it …”