Blazin' Saddles: Six key moments from the men's World Championships road race
With Peter Sagan securing his second successive world title in Qatar on Sunday Felix Lowe - aka Blazin' Saddles - takes a look back at a race which blew apart early before petering out ahead of an explosive finale.
Slovakian showman Sagan snared the spoils on Sunday to ensure he'll wear the rainbow stripes once again next season when turning out for new team Bora-Hansgrohe.
Flanking him on the final podium in Doha were former world champions Mark Cavendish (2011) and Tom Boonen (2005).
As they say: the cream always rises to the top – even when it's curdled by the heat of the Arabian Peninsula.
Belgium played a blinder; Norway and Italy both looked strong; Germany and France had days to forget; Cavendish looked very much the man to beat for Britain.
But in the end it was a man with just two team-mates who stole the show – adding a second successive world title to wrap up a season that has seen Sagan win his first monument in Flanders, three stages of the Tour de France, a fifth successive green jersey, and the European Championships.
Sagan isn't merely the cream of the crop: he's the cow with the golden udders.
So, where was the race won and lost? Time to look back at six key moments before making some final conclusions.
1 - Belgium and Britain blow the race apart
The omens were there when a vortex swirled across the road in front of the peloton during the outward journey north into the Arabian desert. After a sharp 90-degree turn a headwind became a crosswind and all hell broke loose. If Britain instigated the split through Cavendish, Adam Blythe and Luke Rowe, it was Boonen's Belgian squad who turned the screw for some of their rivals.
The upshot? With 177km remaining, Belgium placed six riders – including veteran Boonen and the Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet – in a 30-strong group which, with the benefit of a tailwind on the return leg to Doha, could not be caught. Italy and Norway both had power in numbers, too, while that man Sagan left it late but just managed to jump across into the leading group.
"I was very happy because I was the last guy to get into the group and that was the first victory of the day," Sagan said.
The reigning champion was joined by his brother, Juraj, and their fellow Tinkoff team-mate Michal Kolar. Both would prove key to Sagan, even if his brother was later dropped after fetching water for his team-mates.
2 - Frustrated France and Germany miss the split
While Sagan, Cavendish, Boonen, Michael Matthews (Australia), Giacomo Nizzolo (Italy) and Alexander Kristoff (Norway) were all on the right side of the split, the French and Germans missed the bus. Correction: John Degenkolb was there for Germany, but an untimely mechanical saw the 2015 Paris-Roubaix champion drop back into the second group after the race split into multiple echelons following those crosswinds.
Watching the split again, you can see the Australian pocket-rocket Caleb Ewan digging deep to follow Sagan over – but the 22-year-old couldn't muster the strength to do so. Ewan soon blew up in the Qatari heat, dropping through the groups like a stone in water before being pulled up with the gruppetto as the race re-entered Doha.
Nacer Bouhanni (France) missed the cut and initially worked hard with German's Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel to close the gap. Even when Degenkolb came back there was not enough cohesion in the second group to bring the race back together.
Tempers began to flare – primarily in the German camp. In the desert, both Kittel and Degenkolb took issue with support cars driving too close (in Kittel's case, almost causing a fellow rider to crash after his bidon rebounded back into his bike).
Water bottles were also the primary means of attack for the Germans when the race entered Doha for seven laps around the Pearl. With Belgians Jens Debusschere and Iljo Keisse sandbagging to thwart every German counter attack, Degenkolb lashed out by squirting Debusschere in the face with his bidon.
Both Degenkolb and Kittel would withdraw from the race with apparent heat exhaustion ahead of the final lap with the gap having grown above three minutes.
3 - Tom Leezer attacks
With 25 riders entering the final lap out ahead it seemed inevitable that someone would try their luck from distance rather than wait for the sprint. Unsurprisingly, the first person to do so was Niki Tepstra – perhaps channelling his winning move from Paris-Roubaix in 2014. It came to nothing – but soon we saw another attack from a rider in orange.
This time it wasn't Terpstra but his Dutch team-mate Tom Leezer, who threw a cat among the pigeons with just under three kilometres remaining. Such was the ferocity of his attack that Leezer opened up a huge gap. At one point it looked like the 30-year-old had pulled off an extraordinary coup – and he still held a decent cushion going under the flamme rouge.
But any hopes of red hot Dutch delight were extinguished when the sprint finally opened up behind and the fast men whirred into action.
4 - Cavendish fails to follow Blythe
The 2011 world champion will have winced when watching aerial replays of the final sprint. When the impressive Blythe – who had earlier fought back into the lead group after picking up a puncture during the city centre loops – launched his lead-out, Cavendish opted to follow Sagan's wheel instead. It was a big mistake.
Soaring clear and opening up a gap for his man, Blythe looks behind and only sees Kristoff. And when Sagan himself veers to the right of the road, Cavendish has a change of heart and goes through the middle. But his path is blocked by Matthews, and the Manxman is forced to check his speed before riding around the Australian on the left.
It left the 31-year-old with too much to do and not enough road. Crossing the line behind Sagan, Cavendish looked back and shouted at Matthews in anger – but he knew he only had himself to blame, and admitted as much afterwards.
"I wanted to be on Sagan's wheel, and ultimately I was and then all of a sudden the road was blocked," Cavendish said.
"We talked about [Blythe] going at that point, but with the wind it didn't quite go. He did what he was asked.
"I made the call, and at the end of the day, it was the wrong call to make.
" I'm a little bit disappointed. I feel like I lost gold rather than I won silver."
5 - No Norway
Despite having three men in the business end of the race – including the impressive rookie Truls Korsaeth – Norway could not place either of their big stars in the top five, let alone contest for a medal.
A frustrated Kristoff put the blame firmly at the door of his team-mate Edvald Boasson Hagen, who he claimed rode for himself and not for his country's best chance of a medal.
"He was sprinting for himself," said Kristoff, not mincing his words.
"I was pretty pi**ed when I passed the finish line because he could have done a perfect lead-out but in the end we finished sixth and seventh. That's nothing to come home with. I wish that I could have brought something home but me and Edvald f***ed it up at the end."
Both Kristoff and Boasson Hagen will have a chance to put things right next year in their native Bergen on a hilly course which is supposed to suit both their characteristics.
6 - Nizzolo doesn't close the door
Of course, Sagan still had to sprint clear of all his rivals to secure the win – and by taking the roundabout route on the right-hand side of the road, the 26-year-old was taking an almighty gamble.
Sprints are so often won in a split second – with so many factors contributing to the overall outcome. Had Italy's Nizzolo closed the door on Sagan then the Slovak sensation, rather than riding to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, would have been blasting into the barriers.
Sagan admitted his move was a "lottery", succinctly claiming that "if Nizzolo goes to the right, then we crash because I don't brake."
Given the negative preamble, the men's road race actually provided thrills and spills aplenty. Sure, there wasn't much in the way of scenery to look at – and the lack of climbs made it a very one dimensional affair – but no World Championships road race in the modern era has seen a principal selection made so early on and in such a thrilling manner.
The splits in the pack made the backward leg to Doha extremely interesting as Germany fought in vain to close the gap. And although the circuits around Doha were rather cagey and nondescript, there was genuine suspense ahead of the finale.
Dutchman Leezer almost went off script before a pulsating sprint delivered the people's choice to the top of the podium in Sagan – although both Cavendish and Boonen would have been worthy, popular winners.
It was the first time in World's history that the final podium has been made up entirely of former winners, and between them Messrs Sagan, Cavendish and Boonen boast almost 140 days in the Tour's famous green jersey.
Doha 2016: final verdict
The venue resembled a giant building site in a sweltering sand pit while Brian Cookson's claims that no riders suffered heat exhaustion ran contrary to the slew of images and quotes from the competitors themselves suggesting the contrary.
But the actual showpiece finale to an otherwise drab, infuriating and spectator-less World Championships was actually rather riveting. The lack of climbs or significant landmarks were made up for by crosswinds and some aggressive racing – and the final sprint itself was very much edge-of-your-seat exciting.
It's the very attraction of the Worlds that each year throws up different obstacles, terrain and conditions – and it's perhaps telling that, despite all the talk of heat, the men's road race was won by a rider who, unlike others, didn't come out weeks in advance to acclimatise to the sauna-like conditions, but instead trained near his home in Monaco before arriving at the latest possible moment.
That the new world champion is the man who finished top of the UCI rankings after a stellar season was fitting – despite the heartbreak suffered by Cavendish and Boonen (especially after Belgium's near-perfect team display).
At the end of the day, the world champion is world champion again. And who would bet against Sagan becoming the first man in history to win three in a row in Bergen next year?