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Sept 29, 2015 – Ever since Peter Sagan pulled off his magical world championship victory on Sunday afternoon in Richmond, Virginia, I’ve been trying to recall if I’d ever seen a winner cross the line, dump his bike and walk back toward the finish, low-five the smiling rivals he’d beaten, take off his gloves and helmet and throw them into the crowd (I wonder how much they’ll fetch on eBay?). No, that’s never happened before.

Words: John Wilcockson/Photos: Yuzuru Sunada

But a swashbuckling Alexi Grewal, just about to win a Coors Classic stage, jumped off his bike, picked it up and walked across the line to the raucous cheers of his fans. And I was lucky to be present at Chamonix in 1963 when Jacques Anquetil outkicked Federico Bahamontes at the end of a rugged Tour de France mountain stage, dismounted and walked back to the line to collect the yellow jersey. He didn’t have a helmet to toss, but, as he walked in the rain, Maître Jacques pulled a comb from his back pocket and, with a flourish, swept it through his wet blond hair.

Crowd-pleasing panache links these three riders—though Sagan’s wild hair probably doesn’t see a comb that often! Anquetil, like Sagan, was an atypical champion. The legendary Frenchman was the first rider to win the Tour five times, but unlike most great champions of that era, he never wore the rainbow jersey—the most coveted jersey in cycling after the Tour’s yellow tunic. Eddy Merckx won the world pro title three times; his Belgian predecessors Rik Van Looy and Rik Van Steenbergen both won it twice; and the roll call of Tour champs who also won worlds goes back to Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet and Felice Gimondi and forward to Bernard Hinault, Stephen Roche and Greg LeMond. That pattern changed in the post-LeMond era, when the top riders began to specialize, focusing on either the grand tours or the one-day classics (including the worlds).

As a result, the specialists with the strongest teams have tended to claim the throne—whether setting up their leader for a winning break or leading them out for a sprint. Over the past 20 years, Spain has collected four rainbow jerseys (three for sprinter Óscar Freire and one for classics rider Igor Astarloa); Italy took four titles (one for sprinter Mario Cipollini, two for classics specialist Paolo Bettini and another for Alessandro Ballan); and Belgium scored three, all with classics winners (Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert)

27 September 2015 Road World Championships (Richmond, USA) Men Elite GILBERT Philippe (BEL) BMC Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

The only grand tour winner to buck the trend in this more recent period was Australia’s Cadel Evans, who won his rainbow jersey on the hilly Mendrisio course in 2009. Since then, four of the six titles have gone to riders from “small country” teams: Norway’s Thor Hushovd in an 18-man group sprint in 2010 prior to the trio of most recent champions—Portugal’s Rui Costa, Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski and Slovakia’s Sagan—who all won in one- or two-man breakaways.

On paper, this week’s championship should have gone to one of the “big” national teams, those that are highest in the world rankings and have nine riders on the start line. Leaders of those teams know they have plenty of teammates to help them get back to the peloton should they crash or have a mechanical. Sagan had just two teammates, his brother Juraj and Michal Kolar. “They were always with me, until the final lap,” Sagan explained. That was important because the Slovakia team car was far behind, 27th or 28th back in the convoy. In case of trouble, his brother or Kolar, could have handed him a wheel or their bike.

An even bigger fear for Sagan in Sunday’s race was losing out to a breakaway in the final hour, when the pace was at its highest (the last three laps were all raced at 45 or 46 kilometers an hour compared with the overall average of 41 kph). And Sagan said he feared he’d lost his rainbow chance when, 35 kilometers from the end, Britain’s Ian Stannard instigated a breakaway on the second cobbled climb (North 23rd Street) that soon included riders from four of the big teams—Boonen (Belgium), Elia Viviani (Italy), Bauke Mollema (Netherlands) and Dani Moreno (Spain)—along with defending champ Kwiatkowski and Costa Rica’s excellent Andrey Amador.

27 September 2015 Road World Championships (Richmond, USA) Men Elite AMADOR Andrey (CRC) Movistar Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

Like many others, Sagan believed those strong, highly motivated riders were gone for good. Instead, their half-minute lead didn’t grow on the penultimate lap because two of the other nine-man teams, Germany and Australia, chased relentlessly on the 12 kilometers of flat roads before reaching the trio of closing climbs. The chasers were aided on the out-and-back stretch along the die-straight Monument Avenue because they could look across the median and see the breakaway and assess the gap they had to close. The hardest worker in that chase was German sprinter André Greipel, who literally sacrificed any chance he had of winning in favor of his younger teammate John Degenkolb—the winner this year of Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix.

When the decisive moves finally came on North 23rd Street, a lap after the break was caught, Degenkolb was right there as Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet launched an attack approaching the block-long cobbled sector with its double-digit grades. 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, 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.”

27 September 2015 Road World Championships (Richmond, USA) Men Elite BOONEN Tom (BEL) Etixx - Quickstep STYBAR Zdenek (CZE) Etixx - Quickstep Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

In previewing the race last Friday, I wrote, “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.” Well, now we know, 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.

By earning the rainbow jersey in such dramatic, decisive fashion, the 25-year-old Slovak showed that he has reached an even higher level in his decision-making ability. High on the adrenaline rush of victory, Sagan showed his still-youthful exuberance, but he also showed a new maturity that will almost certainly take him to new heights in the coming decade. He’s a new-style champion with old-style panache.

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You can follow John on Twitter @johnwilcockson