RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Peter Sagan rode hands-free across the finish line, popping off his bike and casting it aside with a flourish. He tossed his helmet into the adoring crowd and threw his arms into the air.
No need to wait for a gold medal to celebrate a world championship.
Sagan attacked with about a mile left in the elite men’s race Sunday, gritting his teeth as he powered down Broad Street and away from his rivals. Michael Matthews of Australia sprinted for silver in a reduced group of big names, while Ramunas Navardauskus of Lithuania took bronze.
“I could not believe I crossed the line alone,” Sagan said with a grin. “I wasn’t thinking about a rainbow jersey this year and now I have it. It’s strange.”
It was the first world championship medal in the men’s road race for Slovakia, but hardly one that came as a surprise. Sagan long ago emerged as one of cycling’s biggest talents, even though he had an up-and-down season that including sharp criticism from his trade team owner.
Sagan may have been the only one who refused to anoint himself the favorite.
“Probably the most deserving winner we’ve had at the world championships in a while,” said American standout Taylor Phinney, who spent part of the race in a breakaway.
“I came here to win today and I knew I had the legs to do it,” Matthews said, “but yeah, the final there, Sagan slipped away and he was really strong, so unfortunately I sprinted for second.”
The day’s first breakaway formed shortly after riders departed from the University of Richmond and made their way downtown, where thousands of fans lined the 10-mile circuit.
Among those in the eight-man move was Ben King, who was born in Richmond and still has home near Charlottesville. The Virginia Tech alum responded to the roars of his nation by leading the break up the cobbled climb of Libby Hill, ensuring the red, white and blue would be well-represented in the first world championships on home soil since 1986.
“It was cool to be out front,” King said, “put on a little bit of a show.”
A more dangerous break materialized with about two laps left, and included favorites such as Belgian one-day specialist Tom Boonen, Italian sprinter Elia Viviani, Dutch strong man Bauke Mollema and Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski, the surprise world champion of a year ago.
That failed as well, and the peloton was back together for the final lap.
“Nobody really went for it,” Kwiatkowski said. “We had more than a 30-second advantage. It was a nice gap, but everybody knew the last kilometers would decide it.”
Zdenek Stybar of the Czech Republic was first to attack on Libby Hill, and John Degenkolb of Germany went with him. A line of riders followed the duo, with Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium joining Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen in nailing back the move.
Sagan, who hid safely in the peloton all day, finally pushed to the front. He raced past Van Avermaet, got into a time-trial tuck and sped downhill to open a gap. By the time Sagan made the last left-hand turn onto the finishing straight, he was well clear of the field.
“It’s unbelievable for me,” said Sagan, whose brother Juraj was also part of the small, three-man Slovakia squad. “It’s my biggest victory and I’m very happy.”
Unbelievable for Sagan, painful for Matthews and the rest of the contenders.
“It was a bit heartbreaking,” he said, “to see the rainbow jersey ride away like that.”
While the U.S. ultimately missed out on the podium Sunday, it was nonetheless a successful home world championships.
Megan Guarnier earned the Americans’ first medal in an elite road race since 1994 when she captured bronze on Saturday. The U.S. also got two gold medals from Chloe Dygert and two silvers from Emma White in junior events, and another silver and bronze from men’s junior events.
U.S.-based BMC Racing also defended its team time trial gold to open the championships, while the 12th-place finish of Alex Howes on Sunday helped with Rio Olympics qualification.
“We had kind of a wild-card team,” Phinney said. “I think we can be happy we gave the people of Richmond something to cheer for all day, and that was special for all of us.”