BERGEN, Norway (Reuters) - Peter Sagan turned around an annus horribilis in style on Sunday, celebrating his third straight road race world title less than three months after being kicked out of the Tour de France.
The Slovakian outsprinted local favourite Alexander Kristoff and Australian Michael Matthews, who were second and third respectively, after staying quiet all day in the main pack.
“Every time something bad happens, it is for something good. You have to see it the optimistic way,” the 27-year-old Sagan told a news conference.
Sagan was disqualified from the Tour on July 4 after he sent Briton Mark Cavendish crashing in the final sprint of the fourth stage.
Sagan, one of the most colourful characters in the peloton, took time off, resuming at the Tour of Poland in late July but skipping the Vuelta, often regarded as an excellent warm-up race for the world championships.
“I had a lot of fun, I had a lot of time to spend time with my family, it was good,” said Sagan.
He came into Sunday’s 267.5-km race with fresh legs and a fresh mind, admitting he had ‘no strategy’.
“You have the feeling he has no interest in the race, he’s joking, screaming around and acting the fool at the back of the bunch and, in the end, he wins,” said France’s Anthony Roux.
Ten kilometres from the finish, on the last climb of Salmon Hill — a 1.4-km ascent at an average gradient of 6.4 percent — the Slovakian thought he had no chance to win.
France’s Julian Alaphilippe and Italian Gianni Moscon were 10 seconds ahead and seemed set for a two-man sprint.
“I was watching the race from the back and said ‘Okay, we go for third, fourth, fifth place.’ I was not thinking about the title then,” he explained.
But Alaphilippe, whose brutal attack on Salmon Hill blew apart the pack, and Moscon were reined in.
“We caught them in the last kilometre and then we came together for a sprint,” said Sagan.
He timed his effort to perfection, riding in Kristoff’s slipstream and pipping the Norwegian to the line.
He is now one of five riders with three road race world titles, along with Italian Alfredo Binda, Belgians Rik van Steenbergen and Eddy Merckx and Spain’s Oscar Freire, and the first to win three in a row.
Can he go for a fourth? It is unlikely as the course for next year’s world championships in Innsbruck, Austria, might be more suited to the pure climbers.
“Then it means that I can take longer holidays, good for me,” said Sagan.
Editing by Clare Fallon