267.5km and a repeat win for Peter Sagan. He bided his time launched a long sprint and timed his throw to the line to win by centimetres. This was a win earned in the final seconds but also built on the foundation of recent years. With two titles already there was no need to gamble with attacks or chase too many rivals, Sagan could play the percentages when others were chasing rainbows.
The early break had two World Tour riders included with Alexey Vermeulen from the US and Costa Rica’s Andrey Amador, not someone to gift a big lead. With 112km Maxim Belkov attacked out of the bunch, a sign the race was warming up. 71km to go and France’s Warren Barguil attacked on the branded climb of “Salmon Hill” but was countered by a move launched by Tim Wellens who was joined by Lars Boom (Netherlands), Jack Haig (Australia), Marco Haller (Austria), Alessandro De Marchi (Italy), Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia), David de la Cruz (Spain) and Odd Christian Eiking (Norway) and Barguil’s retreat into the bunch left the French team along with Poland taking up the chase.
The Wellens group took 30-40 seconds but couldn’t get further, it wasn’t that dangerous but it was a lure to force others to chase. Tom Dumoulin attacked with 32km to go and it seemed like the race could suddenly catch fire given his form and apparent ambition but the peloton still had over 100 riders and while some planned to sit tight there were plenty of workers willing to chase.
Onto the final climb and a spectator’s sleeping bag rolled into the road, a sign that it was finally time for TV viewers to wake up. Tony Gallopin (France) was the first to take a flyer up Salmon Hill. He’s a good rider but like many salmon trying to scale a waterfall it doesn’t work on the first attempt and he couldn’t drop everyone à la pédale. This was softening exercise that baited others into responding all while team mate Julian Alaphilippe could sight tight. Alaphilippe saved his explosive jump for the second half of the climb and briefly there was a Quick Step moment with the likes of Niki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert in pursuit but they couldn’t close the gap.
Alaphilippe was joined by Italy’s Gianni Moscon who’d earlier crashed. Video showed him getting a long tow from the Italian team car and he’d duly get disqualified – not only is this cheating but it’s self-defeatingly stupid because it will be filmed and posted online – but for now he was in the head of the action. The tow might have helped but Moscon was fading and Alaphilippe surged away on the cobbles around Bergen’s docks. The Frenchman took a gamble going solo as Lukas Postlberger and Vasil Kiryienka closed in with a group of about 30 riders just metres behind too. Then the TV blacked out, a power cut apparently and first the moto cameras went, the helicopter and for a minute nothing could be seen until the riders reached the finish line with Magnus Cort Nielsen taking a solo flyer, countering a brief attempt by Gilbert and Fernando Gaviria floating off the front too, blunting his sprint and certainly not showing the economy of Sagan. It came back together and we got a sprint lead out by Italy’s Alberto Bettiol which briefly made you wonder which team he was going to for 2018 but perhaps he was just trying to take a flyer rather work for others? Inevitably Sagan was perfectly placed on the final corner and surged clear with Kristoff alongside him and the Slovak timed his throw to win his third consecutive rainbow jersey.
Sagan’s sprint was all the more impressive because this was a downhill finish, to outdo a powerhouse like Kristoff may well be as satisfying for the Slovak as beating Cavendish and Boonen last year in Doha. Yet this was not his finest win, one of those rides where he wins in a manner that nobody else can, unlocking a race with power or skills that nobody else seems to possess, such as the 2016 Ronde Van Vlaanderen or the 2016 Tour de Suisse Rheinfelden rampage. Kristoff did a great ride to take second place and finished off the very visible work of the Norwegian team. Matthews meanwhile was close once again, fourth last year and second in Richmond.
The race doesn’t pass the “DVD test”: this was not a vintage edition where you’d buy the video to keep and watch again and again (and not just because the TV coverage suffered a late power cut). It wasn’t until the final lap came alive Sanremo-style. Alaphilippe’s attack left the world’s best trailing but once again enlivens a race only to lose out. It’s just a matter a time until he wins big, maybe in Lombardy very soon. The brief TV meltdown only heightened the suspense for a moment but we missed several moves. Either way it meant a frantic finale for participants and viewers alike. We see him everywhere yet Sagan remains an elusive character, a big personality but one played out via short videos and animated GIFs, who knows his world view?
It ends a great week in Bergen, a great host and if the weather was cool the welcome was very warm, perhaps the biggest crowds since Duitama in 1995, maybe bigger. The courses were good and offered some excellent racing all week and even the men’s time trial up Mount Fløyen was thrilling and we’ll see if the new Lappartient regime stipulates equal courses for men and women in Innsbruck next year.
Photo credits: Einar Kvalheim, Trinadh Rakesh and Bjørn Erik Nesse via bergen2017.no