Richmond, city of tobacco and the home of the Lucky Strike brand. What better place for Peter Sagan to strike once? The Slovakian launched his attack on 23rd Street, flying past Greg Van Avermaet who’d had the same idea, only slower, and then using the twisting descent to extend his lead. This was the moment the race was won.
The early break went with the usual random mix and no obvious team pattern. Virginia’s own Ben King was in the mix. Behind the orange jerseys of the Netherlands led the chase, at times it looked as if they thought there were 30km to go rather than 230km. The breakaway never got a big lead and the Dutch, notably Jos van Emden, toiled for 100km. Did the oranje need to work so hard? Maybe not but they and other teams tried to impose a strategy on the race. With 130km to go we saw Germany start to take over and the next lap the Belgians hit the front on the climbs with Poland visible too.
Anyone watching the race from start to finish might question why they were viewing for so long but the distance matters, on a course without fierce difficulties the steady accumulation of fatigue is needed to tease apart the riders, to turn a molehill into a hors catégorie mountain. But if the race was long, so was the action as we got to see a series of moves that livened up the race. Kanstantin Siutsou, Guillaume Boivin, Jarlinson Pantano and Taylor Phinney: they were never going to win but they can roll and forced other teams to chase.
With four laps to go there was a big crash at the feedzone with many hitting the ground, notably Alexander Kristoff, but all were up and riding soon. Later Michał Kwiatkowski, Bauke Mollema, Tom Boonen, Andrey Amador, Michał Kwiatkowski, Ian Stannard, Dani Moreno and Elia Viviani went clear, a heavyweight move. Boonen looked forceful, Kwiatkowski was floating while Moreno looked the odd one out but was representing Spain. Germany and Australia were left to chase.
Sanremo Flashback: Peter Sagan was among the strongest in Milan-Sanremo last March. It showed. He was tracking moves and showboating on the descent of the Poggio. The result? He was too obvious, predictable rather than audacious. If cycling is wheeled poker, he was showing his hand to everyone. His moves were closed down. To declare Sagan lost this race is too strong but his tactics certainly reduced his chances. It’s one example from many occasions when Sagan simply looked too strong, too obvious, take Stage 16 of the Tour de France as another when Ruben Plaza rode away as the others marked the Slovak.
Back to Richmond 2015 and a reduced peloton reeled in a late exhibition move by Kanstantin Siutsou and Tyler Farrar. Over 250km of racing and it was going to come down to the three climbs on the last lap. Many riders had shown a leg and smile but plenty had kept their faces hidden in the peloton, their names not even mentioned on TV nor race radio.
Up Libby Hill and Zdeněk Štybar attacked with John Degenkolb on his wheel. For a moment the pair had a gap but Philippe Gilbert closed them down and everything regrouped, but only among those who’d been strong up the first climb.
Onto 23rd street and Greg Van Avermaet launched a big attack as soon as he came out of the corner. For a moment it looked promising but as they hit the cobbles and the gradient pitched up Peter Sagan came flying past. Van Avermaet tried to follow but his body language needed no subtitles, his shoulders were rocking and his head was dipping while Sagan looked more forceful. Over the top of the rise there was only a few metres between them but a gulf in body language as Sagan powered away.
Sagan could have sat tight for the sprint but this was – we’re in Richmond after all – a “liberty or death” move with no calculations or hesitations. He quickly turned the descent to his advantage, sitting on the top tube and pedalling to pull out an advantage. Now the time gap was growing, six seconds became nine and then more. Behind the others were hesitating, expecting someone else to chase. Sagan even unclipped his foot from the pedals by accident on the final climb up Governor Street but he was clear of the others and took the solo win.
The course was just selective enough after 260km, the crowds great and the result uncertain until the last moment. If the winning move was launched late in the race it came after an action-packed final hour and delivered a champion winner, a big name with big charisma despite riding for a small team today with his brother Juraj on tap and maybe, just maybe, some Tinkoff-Saxo colleagues.
Sagan’s post-race interview briefly sounded like a confused address to the United Nations with talk that “the population must change“. But it was Sagan who’s changed first, landing the big win he’s been promising with a committed attack. 2015 has been a troublesome season when measured against the high expectations set by his employer and his pay packet. This has meant a season so far defined by his losses, despite a stage win in Tirreno-Adriatico, winning the Tour of California and taking the points competition and beaucoup airtime in the Tour de France before a stage win in the Vuelta. Still 25, it’s not his first rainbow jersey either as he was junior MTB champion in 2008.
Michael Matthews was second and probably could not ask for more after a clever ride. Ramūnas Navardauskas was third and the Lithuanian has delivered some strong finishes before, he’s not a sprinter but has power on tap in a hard finish, today only shows what he’s capable of.
The only let down this week was the TV production. Basic errors like the lack of an on-screen time gap made it hard to know what was happening, whenever the information appeared on screen it felt like a treat rather than a requirement. There were ten minute periods without a time gap between the bunch and the break. Bad? It’s deliberate as this has happened in previous editions of the Worlds and the Olympics under the UCI’s production. The camera crew need a debrief too, they often dwelt on a narrow view, for example when Sagan attacked we saw him riding hard but had no sense if he was going clear on the descent until the camera belatedly panned to the chasers; the helicopter kept showing the rooftops of Richmond instead of the race. This needs fixing before Rio.