Rainbow record: Sagan wins historic third elite world road race championship

by Shane Stokes


Peter Sagan shrugged off rumours of pre-race illness and the burden of pressure to become the first-ever rider to win three consecutive men’s elite road world titles on Sunday.

The Slovakian won a drag-race sprint against home favourite Alexander Kristoff, coming off the Norwegian’s wheel to edge ahead right at the line. Australia’s Michael Matthews was a disappointed third, banging his handlebars as he crossed the finish line.

Matteo Trentin (Italy), Ben Swift (Great Britain), Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium), Michael Albasini (Switzerland) and Fernando Gaviria (Colombia) completed the top eight, with a frustrated Alaphilippe holding on for tenth.

Sagan’s win follows his triumphs in Richmond in 2015 and Doha in 2016.

“It is something special,” he said, asked about the historic treble. “This doesn’t change anything, but for me it is something very nice.”

Sagan kept his powder dry during the race, holding back from the sort of all-out attack he used to win in Richmond. Instead Julian Alaphilippe (France) and Gianni Moscon (Italy) were the big attackers on the final lap, but while Alaphilippe pushed on ahead in a desperate bid to stay clear, the select front group came back together just before the sprint.

“It is very hard to say before [what would happen],” Sagan said, commenting on the unpredictability of the race. “You saw on the climb the bunch was already in two or three pieces. The guys from behind caught us, and the front was a breakaway. Afterwards it came together at the finish, but it was just seconds. You cannot predict it, because maybe with someone stronger in the finish they could have got there.”

Ever able to see the big picture, Sagan thanked his teammates and also ‘my friends in the group,’ before remembering a fellow pro who died in a training accident this year. “I want to dedicate this third world championship title to Michele Scarponi, as he would have had a birthday tomorrow. It was a very sad story this year. I want to wish good luck to all my family.”

He also had someone, and something else, on his mind.

“I also want to dedicate this victory to my wife. We are expecting a baby. It is a very nice finish at the end of the season. I am very happy…”

How it played out:

The world road championship week came to a conclusion on Sunday with the biggest event, an Elite men’s road race fought over a 267.5 kilometre course. After a 40 kilometre loop early on, the race would wage battle on the circuit in Bergen, taking in 12 laps which included the climb of Salmon Hill.

Almost immediately after the drop of the flag Conor Dunne (Ireland) jumped clear and was joined by compatriot Sean McKenna plus Azerbaijan’s Elchin Asadov. They were soon reinforced by seven others, namely Alexey Vermeulen (USA), Andrey Amador (Costa Rica), Willem Jakobus Smit (South Africa), Kim Magnusson (Sweden), Matti Manninen (Finland), Eugert Zhupa (Albania) and Salaheddine Mraouni of Morocco.

These worked well and opened a gap of more than ten minutes. They still had over nine and half when they reached the first ascent of Salmon Hill, and eight a half crossing the finish line for the first time. From there the inevitable erosion happened, with the peloton’s workhorses whittling the lead down to six minutes 45 by the end of the next lap, 6 minutes 20 the next time around and just four and a half minutes with eight laps to go.

The favourites were biding their time, but Matthews was rueing the loss of 2016 Paris-Roubaix winner Mat Hayman, who came down in an early crash and needed stitches to his chin.

Manninen was the first of the break to get into real difficulties and slipped back. Zhupa was the next to crack, but managed to rejoin with just over 121 kilometres left. The nine leaders had just over three minutes’ advantage with six laps remaining.

Although it seemed inconceivable that a lone rider could bridge across, that didn’t deter Maxim Belkov (Russia) from trying. He quickly got 30 seconds on the bunch and by the climb of Solheimsviken, was just over two minutes behind. Out front Asadov and Zhupa cracked, with Mraouni then yielding to the pressure on Salmon Hill.

The latter was caught by Belkov prior to the start of the fifth-last lap, with the duo being one minute 36 seconds behind the six leaders. The bunch was a further minute and nine seconds back, but quickly closed the gap to those two chasers once the Dutch team turned the screw.

Out front, Smit recognised the danger and attacked the other riders in the break, holding a slight advantage over the bunch going over the top. His effort came to an end with 80 kilometres to go, with things finally coming back together. The action was about to ramp up.

The big guns begin to push forward

Crossing the line with four laps to go, Jack Bauer (New Zealand) was feeling good and looking to make a move. He did so on the next ascent of the Solheimsviken climb but was unable to get a gap. Belgium’s Tiesj Benoot also tried, but with the same result.

The attacks continued on Salmon Hill: Tour de France King of the Mountains Warren Barguil put in a huge attack and stretched the peloton right out, getting a gap. The bunch wasn’t willing to let such a big name go clear and reeled him in, but Marco Haller countered and had more success in opening a lead.

Tim Wellens (Belgium) sensed opportunity and leaped across to the Austrian, with six others also joining. These were Lars Boom (Netherlands), Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia), Odd Christian Eiking (Norway), Jack Haig (Australia), David de la Cruz (Spain) and Alessandro De Marchi of Italy.

The French and Polish teams chased hard, but the eight leaders nevertheless had a 43 seconds lead with three laps to go. The chase pared this back to 25 seconds by the base of Salmon Hill, but a powerful ascent by Wellens ramped the lead back up to 39 seconds by the summit.

They had almost the same advantage crossing the finish line with two laps to go, while lone chaser Nils Politt (Germany) was 19 seconds back but soon to be caught. He was reeled in prior to the next ascent of Salmon Hill, while back in the bunch Tejay van Garderen (USA) crashed, ending his chances.

Elite TT winner Tom Dumoulin had talked up the possibility of taking road race gold and launched a huge attack on the climb. He couldn’t break the elastic, but did drag a small group clear. Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) was one of those present, and looking for the chance to take a second career world title.

The bunch was wise to the danger, though, and hauled back this chase group on the descent. Wellens, Haig, Eiking and De la Cruz had dropped the other breakaway riders on the climb and were desperately trying to fend off the chasers. However their bid ended with 25 kilometres left, with the reduced peloton getting across to them.

Things were back together once more, yet further attacks were inevitable.

Alaphilippe shows his strength

Next to try his hand was Luis Mas (Spain), who put in a well-timed attack to open a gap and lead at the bell. The fireworks were igniting behind, though, and he was recaptured soon afterwards.

Sebastian Langeveld (Netherlands) and Paul Martens (Germany) then kicked clear on the Solheimsviken and established a seven-second gap, only for the French team to reel them in.

Tony Gallopin followed up on his compatriots’ work with a surge heading towards Salmon Hill, but didn’t get far. That wasn’t a problem: team-mate Julian Alaphilippe used the chase as a platform to launch a big move on the climb, breaking the elastic and surging clear. Gianni Moscon (Italy) was the only one with the legs to bridge across, and together the duo started the descent with a solid advantage.

Ten kilometres remained at that point and alarm bells were going off behind. A select group dug deep in pursuit, out of which Vasili Kiryienka (Belarus) and Lukas Postlberger (Austria) emerged. They could see the leaders, but in turn were in view of the big chase group, which was closing in.

Alaphilippe was frustrated by a lack of cooperation by Moscon and dropped the Italian with just over four kilometres left. Kiryienka shrugged off the company of Postlberger and put in his own bid for a medal, but the chasers were getting closer and closer.

They duly mopped up the leaders, with Alaphilippe’s rainbow dream ending with less than two kilometres left. One of the Danish riders then played his own card, but was overhauled on the finishing straight. Kristoff then kicked hard and gave everything to land a home-soil victory, but Sagan was perfectly poised and inched around him right before the line.

With that, he landed his third consecutive title and made history in the sport.

“In the end, it came to a sprint and it was unbelievable,” he smiled. “Kristoff is racing at home, and I’m sorry for that, but I’m happy to win again.”

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