This year’s elite men’s road race went off as expected, which is to say it was predictable only in its unpredictability — though only after a good 200km of leg-sapping circuits around Richmond. Truly an endurance event, it was hard going for the riders who kept a steady but not overly rapid tempo for the first 12 or so circuits, and it was tough, too, for the viewer at home; just how long could we realistically sit and listen to Carlton Kirby describe his biscuits before all sanity evaporated? But these melodramas aside, it was truly an excellent race, which delivered on all its promise when it came down to the final circuits. Let us take you through it.
The course, as we mentioned in our preview, ran round a 16.2km circuit, with three climbs all packed into the last 4.5km of each lap. The climbs were short but tough: the first was a windy cobbled test up Libby hill; the second was a straight rise up 23rd street, again over cobbles, followed by a rapid descent; the third was ostensibly a cut-through via a car park between two commercial buildings, though was actually the Governor street climb. Libby hill was by far the most dramatic sight each pass, with fans clamouring at the sides to catch a glimpse of riders, and one wide corner dedicated to local rider Ben King. King duly made it into the day’s break, and led the way over the line and up the hills for much of the race. His grin spoke volumes; for some riders, it was privilege enough to be merely riding in this race, let alone riding with the intention of winning.
The first real drama of the day came at 55km to go, when a tumble in the feed zone had a domino effect in the latter part of the peloton. Norway’s team were involved, which looked like bad news for favourite for the win Alexander Kristoff — however, Kristoff himself had made it through unscathed. This also led to an upping in the pace at the head of events, and, after the catch of the early breakaway, it led to the first of numerous and various attacks off the front. The most notable and the most potentially threatening of these, though, didn’t materialize until 35km to go.
Across Britain hearts skipped beats, as none other than this year’s Omloop winner Ian Stannard peeled off the front on the 23rd street cobbled climb. He was pursued by Bauke Mollema, and the two were quickly joined by other elite names: Tom Boonen (Belgium), Andrey Amador (Costa Rica), Dani Moreno (Spain), Elia Viviani (Italy), and last year’s world championship winner, Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski. Mollema attacked on the Governor street carpark climb, which didn’t whittle down the selection but did successfully widen the gap back to the chasers. With thirty seconds in hand already, and little over 30km remaining, we thought we were looking at the winning bunch.
Speculations arose as to when Stannard would attack, how the fast men like Viviani would force the other leaders to do the work for him, if Boonen still had his former explosivity, etcetera. But Germany, above all other teams, were clearly dismayed to have missed such a key move, and they were chasing hard. Ending the guessing game over who would be their sprinter, André Greipel himself took a long turn on the front as part of his duty for team leader John Degenkolb. Ultimately, we would see Greipel so exhausted by his effort that he would drop clean out of contention during the penultimate lap — his hard work for — and loyalty to — his leader were not seen amongst all the teams in the road race, and deserve a mention.
A lap passed, and we were once more approaching Libby hill. The leaders worked together, but never truly got themselves organized — no doubt because of wildly differing tactical plans and hopes for the rest of the race. As the leaders caught sight of a massively diminished peloton across the switchbacks on Libby hill, we knew their days were numbered, though they had lasted under 20km to go. As the German team tagged on to the breakaway, Dumoulin showed he still had enough in the legs to make a strong but ineffective attempt to go clear; he was quickly reabsorbed by a depleted peloton now led by Italy’s men, but ended a good season with a display of raw power. The riders were now careering towards the final lap.
It was in the last lap that U.S.A.’s Tyler Farrar and Belarus’s Kanstantsin Siutsou made their joint move. Nimbly darting off the front, the pair opened up a sizeable gap and were hit by a wall of appreciation from the home crowds, delighted to see Farrar replace King as a leading American at the head of affairs. Leading into the last 10km, the two took turns to drag each other up the road and through the deafening roar from the roadside, but the move would not stick. Siutsou, who had been in the morning break already, began to suffer, and Farrar went ahead as lone race leader. Without the support of the Belarusian, it was only a matter of time before he too would be swamped by the speeding pack. Hitting Libby hill for the last time mere seconds before the Italian-led bunch, it was all together again, and once more it was anyone’s race for the taking.
And from then on it was only the biggest names which were on the lips of the commentators. Stybar led the way up the climb and found ground, but hot on his heels was the rangy figure of John Degenkolb. And there behind the German were Edvald Boasson Hagen, Greg Van Avermaet, and Niki Terpstra. It was the strongest of the strong men and punchy sprinters, all now isolated from their teammates and eyeballing each other up the cobbled climb like some scene from a spring classic. Down the other side, it was Degenkolb chasing down Stybar on behalf of a speeding bunch, and up ahead loomed the last ascent up 23rd street, and then only one more climb up Governor. Reaching out for glory, Van Avermaet made it to the foot of the hill first, fast and hard. But shooting past him, skimming over the cobbles ferociously and cresting the climb before all others, was Slovakia’s Peter Sagan.
Sagan had remained unexpectedly anonymous for much of the race. He was never too far from the front, but had not tried to follow any of the moves, was never part of a speeding Slovakian train, and looked strangely unlike himself in the Slovak colours. He had exercised, above all else, patience in the extreme. But here, when it most mattered, he was putting down the power and opening up a gap on Van Avermaet. On the last descent, Sagan was lowering himself on to his top tube and looking for the utmost aerodynamic position, as well as doing all he could to drain the last drops of power from his tired legs. The chasers were Greg Van Avermaet and Edvald Boasson Hagen, with little cohesion in the chasing pack behind that pair. With 800m to go and on the final rise, GVA and EBH both disappeared back into the chase group, and only Sagan remained as the solo race leader. Gritting his teeth and grinding his legs, he was on the rivet and staring at a wide open finish line. Swinging himself into the centre of the road, he let go of his bars and brought himself upright, but barely had the strength to raise his arms as he crossed the line in first. It was an emphatic world championship victory for Sagan. He was followed by the Australian Michael Matthews in second and, a little surprisingly, Ramūnas Navardauskas beat other world class sprinters to take third for Lithuania.
What a win. It is already being said that this must surely be amongst the most popular wins in modern cycling. As Sagan ditched his bike on the finish line and walked back the way he’d ridden, this popularity was reflected in the high-fives and hugs that Sagan received from his rivals at the end of what had been a difficult season for the Slovak. Tormented by the media and team owner Oleg Tinkoff for so frequently hitting the lower steps of the podium, and forced out of La Vuelta only a few weeks ago because of an appallingly piloted motorbike, there could be no sweeter end to Sagan’s season than this. Dedicating his win to the Syrian refugees in Europe (in the mildly confused, lactic-acid addled way that you might expect from a man who just cycled 260km), he is every inch the ‘people’s champion’ that Twitter has now named him. It is worth appreciating the ride which brought him the win, too. A superbly-timed attack gave him the lead on the pack, but it was his superhuman descending skills, and perfect lines around the last fast corners, which found him the valuable three seconds he had on all the rest at the finish. It is also astonishing to note that Sagan at one point slipped out of his cleat on the final climb, but remained without panic and quickly regained control and composure. Few could have managed what he pulled off in the last few kilometres, and this is a greatly deserved win for Sagan.
We should all be appreciative of the fine organisational work done by the Richmond 2015 team, not least the genius minds that concocted a course which on paper looked unexciting, but in reality threw up tremendous surprises and thrilling racing. We should also mention, though, the Eritrean fans at the finish, who flooded the sidelines to support Mekseb Debesay. Their only rider was officially a non-finisher, due to the late time at which he crossed the line, but he was their champion nevertheless, and he was held aloft above a sea of Eritrea flags and colourful clothing, a focal point of pride and a symbol of achievement. It drives home the significance that the world championships (and cycling) has for a huge number of fans across the world. A win in sport is a win, but seeing the whole field of cyclists celebrate one man’s win rather makes you feel that it’s a sport without losers. Slovakia might have won the race, but it is cycling itself that has won this year, thanks to its dazzling young poster boy, Peter Sagan. It’s been a wonderful season, culminating in a brilliant win at the end of a sensational race, and it serves only to remind us that, at its best, above all the doping allegations and over-inflated egos, the dangerously errant support vehicles and the stickiest of sticky bottles, pro cycling is a sport worth celebrating. What a pleasure this race was.