Peter Sagan confirmed himself as one of the all time greats of world championship racing when he won his third consecutive road race crown. The Slovakian came out on top in a furious final sprint that saw him deny Norwegian favourite Alexander Kristoff the gold medal with a late bike throw; while Michael Matthews took the bronze medal.
A massive 276.5km greeted the 196 riders who comprised the start list of the final event of this year’s World Championships in Bergen. Going into the race four riders had achieved three world championship victories – Rik van Steebergen, Alfredo Binda, Oscar Freire and Eddy Merckx – but none of them had done it in three consecutive years. This year presented Peter Sagan with a unique opportunity to do just that.
The first attacks of the day went away with no difficulty at all. Ireland’s Connor Dunne and Sean McKenna, Morocco’s Salah Eddine Mraouni, Albania’s Eugert Zhupa, Azerbaijan’s Elchin Asadov, USA’s Alexey Vermeulen, Costa Rica’s Andrey Amador, Sweden’s Kim Magnusson, South Africa’s Willie Smit and Finland’s Matti Manninen comprised the early move. They gained a very sizeable 9 minute gap; but with such a long distance to cover there was no fear of the move lasting the duration of the race.
For much of the opening kilometres before the finishing circuit little was done in the way of chasing, although that didn’t stop the crowds from coming out in full force to cheer the riders on one last time. The Norwegian fans had done their nation proud and many hoped that either Edvald Boasson Hagen or Alexander Kristoff might come away with the win. New Zealand, with Jack Bauer, Dion Smith and Patrick Bevin all in the mix, had to play their cards well with their three riders to other teams’ 9; and so it was unsurprising to see Jack Bauer towards the back of the bunch; although Patrick Bevin could be seen in the top half of the peloton.
With 230km remaining the break’s advantage entered double figures and even stretched towards the 11 minute bracket until the first indications of an organised chase began to unfold in the peloton. The Czech Republic were the first team to really control the pace in the peloton with their six-man outfit likely to be supporting the efforts of Zdenek Stybar.
Eventually though Belgium made their way towards the front of the race to contribute to the chase and that served to bring the break’s lead down quite considerably to below 7 minutes with less than 200km to go. The field were now well and truly on the circuit, with the circuit to be tackled a total of 12 times. Other teams paying close attention to the goings on at the front were Norway and Australia.
With 125km to go the break’s lead still sat just above the four minute marker although the leaders knew that their days were numbered. That didn’t stop them from providing a spirited effort on the front as behind them Julien Vermote of Belgium and the Czech Republic continued to dictate the pace; a position that had been adopted for much of the last 100km.
The next attack from the bunch came courtesy of Maxim Belkov of Russia. He went off the front solo in pursuit of the break; and caught Mraouni who had dropped back. His time out in front was short lived though as a changing of the guard saw the Netherlands hit the front of the race. They were succeeded by Belgium and Poland, and their collective efforts finally dissolved the breakaway. Willie Smit of South Africa wasn’t done yet though, surging away to enjoy a little more time out in front.
With 75km to go it was Poland who were on the front, sharing the lead of the race with the Netherlands, Norway and France who were quite involved in the very high tempo. The race had sparked into life, but sadly it had done so without Julien Vermote who had taken a tumble while leading the race.
The next significant breakaway group comprised Norway’s Odd Christian Eiking, Lars Boom of the Netherlands, David de la Cruz of Spain, Jack Haig of Australia, Alessandro De Marchi of Italy, Jarlinson Pantano of Colombia, Marco Haller of Austria and Tim Wellens of Belgium. This group was much more threatening and unsurprisingly with three and a half laps remaining the group were riding with far more intensity than had been seen in the earlier breakaway. With 61km to go their lead had gone out to upwards of 30 seconds while France and Poland tried to control matters behind them.
With 54km to go the break’s lead had gone out to 42 seconds and their advantage would stabilise there for the next 10km or so as Italy surprisingly rallied at the front; with their efforts a little unusual given that De Marchi was up the road.
Two laps remained and the gap to the peloton was much the same, but the peloton by now was much fragmented. Team GB had moved towards the front of the race and cut into the break’s advantage, while Nils Politt of Germany tried but failed to bridge across to the leaders. Crashes would play a role in the final two laps with Sebastian Henao of Colombia heading off in the medical van, while Tejay van Garderen of the USA also took time getting back on two wheels after his crash.
At the head of the race though Tom Dumoulin was ready to launch a move of his own with 30km remaining. He was marked, although his acceleration did mop up the rest of the break. With the kilometres ticking away it was a Swiss-Dutch partnership leading the way in the peloton; but the pace and the aggression that riders were willing to show really threatened any sense of fluidity. Despite this with 1 lap remaining the peloton were all together and briefly the race seemed to enter a slight truce; although it would surely not last long.
Holland and Australia traded the lead of the peloton with 16km left to race, but the attacks weren’t over yet as Sebastian Langeveld of the Netherlands and Paul Martens of Germany went clear. They were quickly brought back, as was Tony Gallopin of France who also attacked and was brought back at the bottom of Salmon Hill.
Riders were queuing up to attack on the final climb of Salmon Hill and it stretched the field right out. The best of those was Julian Alaphilippe of France who launched a stinging attack that saw Philippe Gilbert try to bridge across with a handful of others. Alaphilippe was gone though, and he had Gianni Moscon of Italy for company who made a big effort that finally drew him over to the Frenchman’s wheel with just over 10km to go.
Behind them there was a battle afoot to organise a good chase effort. The leading duo held a slender 7 second lead with 7km to go. But to their advantage the pace setting was really sporadic behind them, with the very stop-start nature of the chase giving Moscon and Alaphilippe hope. Behind them Vasil Kiryienka of Belarus and Lukas Postlberger of Austria launched a brief effort to attack across to the leaders. Even they couldn’t make it across to the valiant leaders.
Kiryienka and Postlberger closed to 5 seconds with just 5km to go, but then with 4.5km to go Alaphilippe dropped Moscon who simply cracked. Alaphilippe was left alone out front now and with 3km to go he powered onwards in the hope of claiming a solo victory with Vasil Kiryienka in pursuit. With 1km remaining Alaphilippe had been caught though and the race finally headed to a bunch sprint. Chris Juul Jensen of Denmark made one final attack but with 500m to go he was swept up.
The Italians led out the sprint then but with Matthews, van Avermaet, Sagan, Kristoff, Gaviria and co all there it was anyone’s race. Suddenly out of nowhere Sagan launched onto third wheel behind Alexander Kristoff. Into the sprint Kristoff made his move and looked like he might have done enough to take the win for Norway, but Sagan then dug deep in the final 100m to draw alongside Kristoff. It looked like race over for Kristoff but the Norwegian found something to keep his challenge up. Ultimately only a throw of the bike right at the end could separate the two and confirm that Peter Sagan had taken his third world title by a quarter of a wheel. Kristoff took second and Michael Matthews could only bang the handlebars in frustration as he took third. Matteo Trentin of Italy and Ben Swift of Great Britain completed the top five.
Dion Smith was the only Kiwi to cross the finish line, finishing in a group that contained Ryan Mullen, Ariel Richeze and Jean-Pierre Drucker.