Before Peter Sagan traveled to Richmond, Virginia, in September 2015, approaching the end of his sixth season, he was just a moderately successful pro cyclist. Yes, we knew he was an immensely talented bike racer. He’d won the green jersey at the Tour de France four times (and a bunch of stages), he’d won a couple of weeklong stage races (Poland and California), and he’d won three of the lesser spring classics (Harelbeke, Brabantse Pijl and Wevelgem). But he’d yet to break through and take one of the sport’s monuments, and the closest he’d come to winning the world championship was sixth place at Florence in 2013.
Sagan wasn’t a top favorite going into the 2015 worlds at Richmond, especially as he had only two teammates on the Slovakia team against the eight- and nine-man squads of the stronger nations. But in a race preview, PELOTON said: “On a worlds course that is not merely technical, but acrobatic, the nimble, fast-finishing Sagan has most of the qualities needed to win the title. He’s cunning, has buckets of bravado, has great timing and superb bike-handling ability, but as is often the case with the enigmatic Slovak, he may not have the patience to wait for the exact moment when the winning move is made.”
The circuit was mostly flat, with three short climbs in the finale: the cobbled, curving Libby Hill; the steeper, straight (and partly cobbled) North 23rd Street; and the big-chainring Governor Street hill, leading to the final 680-meter-long straightaway. Heading up the crowd-crazed Libby Hill for the sixteenth and final time, after the larger teams had closed down the final dangerous breakaway, 60 riders were still in contention. It looked like the short climb up the 23rd Street “wall” might be decisive.
Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet launched an attack approaching the block-long cobbled section with its double-digit grade. Sagan, the first to chase the Belgian, was on the drops and out of the saddle when he used all his impressively developed arm and leg muscles to sprint up the climb. He passed Van Avermaet, with three others trying to latch on: Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, Germany’s John Degenkolb and France’s Nacer Bouhanni. Over the top, with 2.5 kilometers to go, only the Norwegian was able to catch Van Avermaet, but the two of them were a few bike lengths behind Sagan when, a block later, they turned left onto East Broad Street.
Sagan wasn’t waiting for anyone. “I knew I have to get alone,” he said. “No one will help me.” Indeed, no one would work with a rider they knew would out-sprint them at the finish. There was also another factor at work. As Sagan got into a tuck and sped downhill toward the left turn onto 18th Street, the two chasers appeared to hesitate. Van Avermaet later explained, “Edvald was working for [his teammate Alexander] Kristoff. Sagan was gone—and the world title was gone.”
Well, Sagan did have the patience to be attentive for more than six hours before making the winning move himself, gaining nine seconds before tackling the last uphill on Governor Street (and deftly clipping back into his right pedal after pulling his foot out halfway up) and gritting his teeth as never before to hang on to win by three seconds. It was the most spectacular, prestigious victory of his career; he was thrilled! The Sagan saga had begun….
Sagan’s first season in the rainbow jersey included some of his usual successes, including stage wins at the Tour of California, Tour of Switzerland and Tour de France, along with another victory in Ghent–Wevelgem. But with his confidence sky-high he also took that elusive first monument—winning the Tour of Flanders with a sensational solo break over the final 15 kilometers. With the worlds not happening until mid October, Sagan took a monthlong break after the Tour de France, and planned 10 days of racing in September—placing first and second in the two Canadian WorldTour classics (both in uphill sprints), winning the Europe Road Championship in Plumelec, France (another uphill finish), and taking two stage wins in flat, mass-sprint finishes at the Eneco Tour in the Netherlands.
Those races were perfect preparation for a very unusual world championship in Doha, Qatar. The completely flat course was made up of a 150-kilometer loop along windswept desert roads in 95-degree heat, followed by seven laps of a 15-kilometer urban finishing circuit. The critical point in the race came at the northern turn, where the early headwinds became crosswinds and then a mostly tailwind back to Doha. With sprinters expected to come out on top, the British were working for Mark Cavendish, the Belgians for Tom Boonen, the Aussies for Michael Matthews and the Norwegians for Kristoff and Boasson Hagen. Again, Sagan had just two Slovak teammates.
After the peloton made the first of the two northern turns, the Brits were in front, moving to the center of the road and accelerating to 70 kilometers per hour. To their right and slightly behind, came the Belgians and Norwegians, while the rest of the riders in the still-huge peloton were strung out along the right-hand gutter, vainly seeking shelter from the crosswinds. This section of road lasted just over 2 kilometers before the course turned sharp right, onto a much older road with no shoulders and broken tarmac bordering the desert gravel and sand. As the wind became more of a tailwind, blowing from the right, the leaders’ pace picked up even more, hitting 76 kilometers per hour—and the front echelon moved clear.
Sagan later said: “I was the last one to get in the first group,” where both of his teammates, his brother Juraj and Michal Kolar, were also spotted. When the dust settled, 30 riders were counted in the front echelon, still five minutes behind the early breakaway and a minute ahead of a big second echelon. There were still 170 kilometers to race, but the chasers would never return. Eight of the original 30 echelon members fell back or quit (including Juraj, when he went back for water bottles but couldn’t rejoin), so when the remaining 22 caught the break, reduced to four riders, it was a group of 26 that headed into the almost eight laps of the finishing circuit. And it was a very select group that sprinted for the title—after a late solo by Dutchman Tom Leezer was snuffed out by the Belgians.
Into the curving, slightly uphill finishing stretch, Italy’s Jacopo Guarnieri led out Giacomo Nizzolo, Belgium’s Van Avermaet led out Boonen and Britain’s Adam Blythe was in position to lead out Cavendish. But Cavendish, the 2011 world champion, was sitting on Sagan’s wheel, still eight places back. When the lead-out men pulled away, Nizzolo charged ahead into the cross/headwind before Boonen took it up in the middle, while Matthews challenged to his left. In a crucial split, Sagan went to the right, shooting for a narrow gap between Nizzolo and the fencing, and Cavendish headed left, but he had to momentarily pause behind Matthews before bursting between the Australian and Boasson Hagen—who was sprinting with Kristoff on the left.
Sagan and Cavendish are both experts in uphill sprints and both were moving the fastest, but the Slovak just squeezed past Nizzolo and swept by the desperately sprinting Boonen with just 50 meters left, while Cavendish couldn’t make up the half-bike-length he’d lost rounding Matthews. Third-place Boonen observed: “Leezer’s attack in the final kilometers forced us to use Jurgen Roelandts earlier than we hoped. As a result he wasn’t there to lead out in the final kilometer.” Second-place Cavendish said: “I messed up tactically and I don’t do that very often….” And a jubilant repeat champ Sagan said: “I felt it was a little bit of a headwind so I had to come from the back. I was also lucky that Nizzolo didn’t close me; if he closed me, for sure we crashed, as I wasn’t going to brake.”
It was the first time that three former world champions had swept the top three places at a later worlds—with Sagan coming through for his repeat victory.
Two-time champion Sagan had to take a different tack in 2017 when he got DQ’d from the Tour de France for alleged dangerous sprinting in the stage 4 finish. With the worlds still two and a half months away, he needed to find some races that would get him up to speed for a course that was much hillier than the previous two years, and had a flat finishing straight. So, with no chance to work on his climbing strength at the Tour, he chose two August stage races that gave him 14 days of racing: the Tour of Poland and the BinckBank Tour (formerly the Eneco Tour). He won sprint stages, along with the points classification, at both events.
The world road race was still six weeks away, so besides lots of training in the hills near his Monaco home, Sagan also needed to do some one-day races with climbing. So, two weeks before Bergen, he returned to Canada; he won the GP de Québec for the third time in his career, while a breakaway was successful in Montréal, where he was beaten in the uphill sprint for seventh place by Van Avermaet and Matthews. They would again be his rivals at worlds, along with home favorite Kristoff and French breakaway expert Julian Alaphilippe.
There were a couple of uphill section on the Bergen course, but the second of these, Salmon Hill, was only 1.5 kilometers long and the 176-meter (577-foot) summit was more than 11 kilometers from the finish line. Alaphilippe was far the strongest on the last climb, and when he was joined after the descent by Italy’s Gianni Moscon, it looked like one of them would win. Even Sagan was dubious that the 25-strong chase group would reel them in. But the long, flat run-in proved too much for the attackers, and so it came down to a flat sprint along the harbor in Bergen.
None of the sprinters had lead-out men, so Kristoff, urged on by a massive home crowd, went for his hallmark effort from the final right turn, and only Sagan could go with him. It came down to a drag race between the two, with a last-gasp bike throw giving Sagan the victory—and his third consecutive rainbow jersey, a feat that no one had previously accomplished. “The third [gold] medal was the hardest,” Sagan said. “Kristoff is racing at home and I’m sorry for [beating him], but I’m happy to win again. It’s unbelievable for me.”
This coming Sunday in Innsbruck, Austria, it’s certain that no pure sprinters will win a medal at the 2018 worlds. The 259.4-kilometer course opens with a 90.6-kilometer run-in from Kufstein that features a 2.6-kilometer, 10.5-percent climb 20 kilometers before reaching Innsbruck. Then come six laps of a 23.9-kilometer circuit with one major climb (the 7.9-kilometer, 5.7-percent Igls), followed by a finishing loop of 31 kilometers that features Igls for a seventh time before the nasty Gramartboden “wall” (a.k.a. the Highway to Höll) that’s 2.8 kilometers long, averages 11.5 percent and has a nasty 25-percent pitch a kilometer from the summit. It tops out just 8 kilometers from the finish, mostly downhill. The total amount of climbing for the likely seven-hour race is 15,321 feet (4,670 meters); that’s right up there with the toughest worlds course of the past, the 1980 race at Sallanches, France, which featured 20 trips up the 2.7-kilometer-long Domancy hill that has an average grade of 8.5 percent (with a 16.7-percent maximum) for a total elevation of 17,900 feet (5,450 meters). That title race was won by five-time tour winner Bernard Hinault in a solo break; only 15 of the 107 starters managed to finish. There’ll be more finishers this coming Sunday in Austria, and no one expects that Peter Sagan will do a four-peat. But you can never count him out!