In recent head-to-head finishes, he beat Sagan in the 2015 Tour de France’s 13th stage to Rodez, the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and in today’s Tirreno-Adriatico nail-biting stage to Cepagatti in central Italy.
Van Avermaet closed a circle today. One year ago in the same Italian stage race, he began his string of top wins with the stage victory to Arezzo. Sagan also placed second that day.
“For me, the other races are important, not this one stage here. It’s OK like that,” Sagan said circled by fans at Tinkoff’s team bus further down the hill. “It was the first races, I don’t care about the races, now I am looking forward.”
Sagan and his Tinkoff team helped tear apart the sixth stage in Abruzzo, one day after organiser RCS Sport cancelled the queen stage due to bad weather. With the summit finish annulled yesterday, bonus seconds were king.
Sagan won the second intermediate sprint and escaped with seven including former race leader Zdenek Stybar (Etixx–QuickStep).
His teammate Oscar Gatto helped set an infernal pace along with Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski. Van Avermaet sat on with his teammate Tejay van Garderen, also high in the classification, in the group behind.
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“What can I do, I can only do my race,” Sagan said of Van Avermaet. “He does his. I had a teammate on the front, he was alone, for sure I spent more energy for the race, but that’s cycling. The wheel turns, you know.”
Sagan shot away early on the slight pitch to fan-packed Cepagatti. He appeared ready to win for the first time since the Richmond, Virginia, World Championships, until his nemesis edged by.
Not only the win, but Van Avermaet gained important bonus seconds and the blue leader’s jersey. He counts a seven-second lead over Stybar and eight seconds over Sagan with only the 10.05km time trail left tomorrow.
“I wasn’t ready for Sagan’s first attack,” Van Avermaet explained in the city’s historic building two stories above the finish line. “We knew that he’d go for the bonus seconds and make the race hard. I spotted the danger and went with them.
“I was alone from BMC and so I tried to save my energy as much as possible. I’m pretty good in uphill sprints like that and so I’m really happy to beat Peter Sagan on a finish like this.”
It may be Van Avermaet’s reign, but Sagan came first. In 2013, he won an Oman and USA Pro Challenge stage ahead of Van Avermaet. And in much bigger races, the Tour included, Sagan ruled when Van Avermaet finished further afield.
“This race is about preparing for the classics but is also nice to win a stage. It boosts your confidence for the classics,” Van Avermaet added.
Asked if Sagan would develop a complex about him, Van Avermaet responded. “I don’t think so. It’s always nice to beat the world champion.
“I tried to beat him in Richmond but he beat me there. He has the jersey and he’s a great rider because he attacks and animates the race. I hope that he wins a lot of races this year, but it’s nice to have him finish second behind me.”