Peter Sagan has won 69 professional races, including an improbable overall victory at the 2015 Tour of California. He also snagged his fourth straight green jersey at this year’s Tour de France, where he was such an all-around threat that, after eight stages, only Chris Froome and 11 seconds stood between him and the yellow jersey.
Yet there’s been a growing sense that the 25-year-old Slovakian couldn’t win the big one. Though he’s a perennial favorite on the cobbles, his biggest spring victories have been Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke. And he owes his stranglehold on green not to wins but to an ability to finish in the points on a variety of terrains.
Still, Sagan arrived in Richmond high on the list of favorites. He’s always in the mix, and the route — a twisty circuit with cobbled ascents and a technical finale — couldn’t have been better for him. So even though he hadn’t shown his face for the first 15.8 laps of the 16-lap race, as soon as he popped up, it was hardly surprising.
But no one could have anticipated the dashing mix of speed and swagger Sagan was about to unleash.
The announcers were still trying to figure out which Belgian had attacked at the base of the 100-meter climb up 23rd Street (it was Greg Van Avermaet) when Sagan burst from nowhere to come around on the right. He was alone by the top of the climb and would be alone at the finish. But in between, Sagan would treat the world to the best 2.5 kilometers of racing in recent memory.
He dove through a 90-degree left at the top of 23rd and entered a downhill that should have been too short to be decisive, but the world’s best descender used it to pull five seconds out of the field. He extended that at the bottom with a terrifyingly aggressive line around another 90-degree left.
A flat kilometer later, he hit a 300-meter uphill that had been destroying breakaway attempts all week. It appeared that it might end Sagan’s plans, too, when he stood to accelerate and unclipped his right shoe from the pedal.
He was back in so fast few even saw it happen. And he still had a gap as he turned onto the finishing straight, an interminable false flat where the camera’s long focal length gave the illusion that Sagan had slowed to a crawl. It took him 58 seconds to cover the final stretch — more than enough time for everyone to work through all five stages of grief. Because surely he was going to get caught.
But the field never came. Sagan even had enough time to sit up at the finish and raise his arms in a “how ya like me now?” gesture.
Sagan had won the big one, and the people’s champion was now the world champion.