For the 10th time today, the masts of the tall ships loom up on our right. The scent in my nostrils changes as it always does at this point. From the damp cool of a Scandinavian weekend afternoon to the tang of the harbor, flavored with the smoky promise of dozens of fast-food grills selling every kind of edible meat or fish that you can cram into some bread and sell to a hungry cycling fan.
This is the long sweeping left-hand bend that separates the waterfront from the colorful townhouses that characterize this beautiful old port. The first time we came along here, it was at quite a gentle pace, with barely 40 kilometers ridden. That must have been shortly after 11:00 a.m. this morning. The next half a dozen or so times we came past those rocking masts and chattering rigging, the intensity had risen enough to mean there were fewer cyclists hanging on each time. There were nearly 200 of us this morning; now, after the last two or three hard laps of this hilly little circuit in Bergen, there look to be around 60 of us left. A Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) official starts clanging furiously at a big old brass bell to tell us that there is one lap to go. I’m suddenly acutely aware of the No. 1 on my back. It’s now four in the afternoon, and I’ve probably got about half an hour left as UCI World Champion.
It was fairly steady until about five laps to go. Then the Dutch guys all got on the front, and everything became distinctly uncomfortable. The Netherlands always seem to bring seemingly unending numbers of powerful horses to the worlds, and if you’re in the bunch and you see what seems like dozens of 80-kilogram six-foot-plus musclemen in orange jerseys get on the front, it’s always time to take a deep breath and grit your teeth. The “fasten seatbelts” sign goes on in your head. You know it’s going to get bumpy.
Paradoxically, nobody from Holland has won this race in my lifetime. But while they might not have been kings for a long time, they have the ability to be kingmakers, inadvertently or not.
I’d been through a few tests by this time, and mentally I counted them off. Test one: Get to Bergen. Tick. Test two: Start race. Tick. Test three: Look like a cyclist for an hour. Tick.
This was test four: Survive an injection of pace. Oh well, I’ll never be one to die wondering. Better get on with it, Peter.
I hung on. Focused on the wheel in front. Hid, really. I’m used to riding near the front to see what’s going on, and it turns out that it’s all a bit confusing 30 wheels back. But I wasn’t thinking about winning. I was thinking about surviving and about a respectful end to my two years of wearing this fabulously storied rainbow jersey.
The noise around the circuit didn’t let up for a second, and even as the intensity of the race increased, it was impossible to miss the huge number of Slovak fans who had made the trip to Norway. Flags of my home country arched impossibly high into the sky on huge poles. Every time I heard my name shouted, I felt a little stronger. Every Slovak scream from the roadside reminded me that there was an entire nation at home urging me forward, praying for the impossible to happen. There were thousands of Viking helmets covered in red, white, and blue Norwegian colors, huge mountains of men waving flares, hot dogs, or cans of beer. The smell of sizzling frankfurters or the charring of smoked fish was never absent, just shifting in curtains of scent as you passed from one group to another. Swiss fans rang implausibly large cowbells. No cow would survive a night on the Matterhorn with one of those things round her neck. Union Jacks were in abundance too, a budget airline flight for a fantastic weekend was too much for the fanatical British supporters to pass up. Groups of French and Italian supporters crystallized into passionate smaller gangs extolling the praises of one or another particular rider, matching T-shirts imploring Tony Gallopin or Warren Barguil or Gianni Moscon or Sonny Colbrelli to deliver them a rainbow jersey.
Two climbs of Salmon Hill remained. As we hit it for the penultimate time, the Netherlands injected an acceleration in the race as Tom Dumoulin smashed it up the road in true long-levered Dutch time-trialist style. The bunch was suddenly in a long line and halved in size. That was the last bus stop on the route for many, and they coasted in, their races run. But I was still there against all my expectations. With a lap to go. That guy started clanging that bell to tell us what we already knew. I’m wearing No. 1, but my last half hour as world champion was at hand.
Before the race, a lot of people had been talking about Julian Alaphilippe. This young French guy had already made a big mark on the sport with some daring attacks—precociously confident race-changing efforts—and had quickly obtained the respect of his more-garlanded and experienced Quick-Step teammates. His breakthrough season was 2015, when he was second to me at the Tour of California and also second at both La Flèche Wallonne and (most eyebrow-raising) Liège–Bastogne–Liège. For somebody to come so close to winning a Monument as long and as difficult as the world’s oldest bike race at the age of 22 is incredible. His career looked a bit like mine at first glance, but a proper look would show that he was a more accomplished climber than me with a lightning-quick uphill jump in his locker.
It was Alaphilippe who showed us a clean pair of carbon-fiber-soled shoes on the slopes of Salmon Hill the last time. The French were going mad. I was about 20 wheels back, trying to figure out what was going on. I could see a couple of favorites, maybe Philippe Gilbert or Niki Terpstra, trying to bridge, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know if we’d caught all the breakaways either. Confusion reigned, and there were just 10 kilometers left.
I tested my legs by showing my face at the front of the bunch for the first time since the start line six hours ago. The conventional wisdom with cornering on a bike is that you brake first, cut across the apex, then accelerate out. Trial and error—quite a few errors—have taught me that if you take it wide, you don’t need to brake, you get a sort of slingshot effect and come out quicker than the others. With Ben Swift trying to close the gap to however many riders were up the road, I used the technique to get up to him and try to affect the chase. Instantly, I remembered what it was like to be Peter Sagan as the race rode up to my wheel . . . and stayed there. Didn’t they want to catch these guys? There were about 4 kilometers to go now. Five minutes left as world champion.
I reckon there must have been about 15 guys left in my group. Later, we discovered that the TV coverage dropped out at this point, causing confusion and desperation at the finish and leading to fingernail destruction on an epic scale among the crowds and support staff.
With no visual evidence, I could probably spin you a yarn at this point about how I moved up alongside the bunch pulling a one-handed wheelie and launched a devastating attack that left everybody miles behind. I stopped on the penultimate corner to drink a beer and let them all catch up as I felt so bad at ruining everybody’s day.
The truth was that there was almost as much confusion in the bunch as there was in front of the blank television screen. As the finish sucked us nearer, we passed Vasil Kiryienka and my BORA-hansgrohe teammate Lukas Pöstlberger, representing Austria. Was that it? No. I hadn’t seen Alaphilippe. And I’m sure that I’d seen at least one Colombian farther up the road, either Rigoberto Urán or Fernando Gaviria or even both of them. Oh! Who’s that Danish guy? Who is actually leading this race? And will we catch them?
Just bury it, Peter, I told myself. You sprint for the line and worry about the position after. We were rocketing along the harbor now, and there was a left-hander then a right-hander, then a straight shot of about 300 meters to the finish line. My heart was in my mouth, I could taste blood. You’re this close, Peter. Don’t die wondering.
Alberto Bettiol was flat out on the front, and it was clear that this was the beginning of the sprint. Nothing cagey here. Everybody was on their own personal limit after six and a half hours, it still wasn’t clear if anybody was left out in front, and the earpiece that linked me to Ján Valach in the Slovakia team car behind us wasn’t helping as the dropout in live coverage had left the support caravan just as confused as those of us racing. There was no possibility of slowing down to look at my rivals. Bettiol was doing an amazing job for his fastest remaining Italian teammate, Matteo Trentin, but it was working for all of us who wanted to sprint. Shit, I don’t think I’ve ever been traveling so fast on a bike after 267 kilometers. I’ve hardly ever ridden 267 kilometers in my life, let alone felt like sprinting at the end of it.
I couldn’t hear myself think. The noise was insane. Prime reason was the man I’d positioned myself directly behind: Alexander Kristoff. This could be a career-defining moment for the local guy. He was seriously fast, especially when he could wind his powerful sprint up from a distance, and he had a great knack of holding his top speed. I’d looked at him, Trentin, Matthews, and all the others and decided that if I’d been betting on the winner, it would be Kristoff all the way. Really, he had been my favorite ever since the venue was announced years ago—I wasn’t going to change my mind with 500 meters to go.
We swung left. The way the yelling went up a notch, the way all those Viking screams spilled onto the circuit as Kristoff began his long acceleration, left me in no doubt that all the breakaways and attacks had come to nothing. We were sprinting for the right to wear that UCI rainbow jersey for a whole year to come. My UCI rainbow jersey. I like you, Alexander, you’re one of the good guys, but that is my jersey.
He judged the last 90-degree right-hander perfectly, already sprinting flat out. Bettiol was spent. My slingshot cornering technique was negated by Kristoff’s speed, but behind me I could sense a gap opening to Matthews, Trentin, and the others. They’d expected the sprint to open after the corner, and Kristoff’s clever acceleration had caught everybody out. It was me and him now. I just had to get past this big Norwegian guy. I’d done it before. But he’d done me before, too.
Three hundred meters is a hell of a long way to ride flat out. If it had been Mark Cavendish leading, I would have been confident of winning if only I could hold his wheel through his initial explosive acceleration. If there had been 20 of us fighting for space, I might have fancied my ability to find a hole to push my nose through. But this was a big wide road with just the two of us going mano a mano for gold, and this guy was the fastest there was on a long, straight road.
I didn’t think it was possible for it to be any louder, but the volume went up again. It seemed the whole nation was screaming in Kristoff’s ears, blowing him over the line. After pushing myself to breaking point to hold his wheel in that opening 100 meters, I tried to use his slipstream to fire past. Oh Jesus, he was just too fast. My absolute final tank-emptying effort brought me up alongside him, but that barrel-of-a-gun bang that fires you around the last guy in a sprint just wasn’t happening. I was alongside him, but the slipstream effect was spent, and he still had his nose in front. With two meters to go, he must be world champion.
At the Tour de France in 2016 in Bern, Switzerland, I had beaten Kristoff by the width of a tire, purely because I’d managed to “throw” my bike at the line at the right moment while he was still concentrating on sprinting. Remembering Switzerland, with all my might I thrust my arms forward, my backside hung out behind the saddle. My legs were straight, my arms were straight, Kristoff was a mirror image on my left.
I waited beyond the finish line, gulping in lungfulls of air and searching for any sign of a result. Had I given enough? Had I left it too late? Every second felt impossibly drawn out as I frantically looked around for any indication of a decision. Finally the finish-line photo came through, and it was clear: His front wheel was a sliver of racing rubber short of mine as we hit the line.
Republished from My World by Peter Sagan with permission of VeloPress.