Peter Sagan played to perfection the role of snake in the grass: lurking, slithering away from danger, hiding in plain sight.
Sagan won Sunday’s men’s elite road circuit, the last and most significant event of the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, with six hours of prudence and 3-4 minutes of quick-striking brilliance. He had no alternative. His three-member Slovakian team could not compete tactically with the sport’s traditional powers.
“The big countries, they can do strategy,” Sagan said. “Me, in this race and with my team, I can’t do strategy. All I can do is ride for me and do the best I can.”
His best was more than good enough. Sagan, 25, waited with the cold-blooded patience of a reptile on the hunt. He surged in front for the first time on his last climb up the 23rd Street hill.
The Slovakian rider blistered the subsequent descent and carried a 5-second lead into the climb up Governor Street. He then held his pursuers at arm’s length. He won in 6:14:37, three seconds ahead of runner-up Michael Matthews of Australia.
“I think I was fifth or sixth after (the Libby Hill ascent),” Sagan said. “I said, ‘The next climb, I have to try.’ I tried, and all of a sudden I was alone. For me, that was the best moment — to be alone (on the descent toward Governor Street). That was the crucial moment.”
Sagan, a rising star who has won four stages in the Tour de France and four more in the Vuelta a Espana, entered Sunday’s race with modest expectations. So daunting was the prospect of weaving without assistance through the week’s largest peloton that a place on the podium — let alone a gold medal — seemed distant.
He said he “didn’t believe it” when he coasted across the finish line in solitary splendor, “and I still don’t believe it. It’s funny: I wasn’t thinking about the rainbow jersey, but now the rainbow jersey is what I have.”
Matthews, a pre-race favorite, had what Sagan did not: eight teammates to shepherd him through the inevitable chaos of a 162.4-mile (261.4-kilometer) circuit race. Matthews, 25, blamed himself for waiting for the sprint along East Broad Street and not attacking Sagan on the Governor Street ascent.
“I feel like I lost gold more than I won silver,” he said. “I came here to win. I knew I could do it. I knew I had the legs to do it. Finishing second after coming in as the favorite — it’s obviously disappointing. My team did a very good job of putting me in position (at the end). It’s very unfortunate that we came up one (place) short.”
Ramunas Navardauskas, a 27-year-old Lithuanian, finished third. Matthews, Navardauskas and the fourth- through 25th-place riders were awarded the same finishing time: 6:14:40.
Navardauskas said the sensation of chasing Sagan along the long finishing straight on East Broad Street was frustrating to a painful extent.
“You’re so tired,” he said. “All you can do is put your head down and try to do the best you can.”
The pursuers’ inability to bite into Sagan’s 3-second advantage, Navardauskas said, “was really kind of annoying.”
The race unfolded in stately fashion. Three significant breakaways — each including an American — were launched. Each was eventually consumed by the hungry peloton. The last break, a two-man effort that involved Tyler Farrar of the U.S. and Kanstantsin Siutsou of Belarus, was absorbed on the last climb up Libby Hill. Sagan made his move soon thereafter.
“Sometimes you have to gamble big,” Farrar said. “It doesn’t always work. They caught me at the foot of Libby Hill and it was game over.”
Still, he said, “It was worth a try. I figured it was better to do that and have it not work than race super conservatively and finish 28th place.”
Alex Howes (12th) and Brent Bookwalter (19th) were the top American finishers. Breakaway participants Ben King, Farrar and Taylor Phinney finished 53rd, 79th and 85th, respectively.
Sagan is something of a free spirit. So eager was he to celebrate his triumph that he declined to discuss his schedule for the remainder of the season.
“My next event? I don’t know. I don’t even want to think about it,” he said.