The 8.9km climb to Vista Chinesa, which the men took on three times, looked made for the pure climbers with its 6.2 per cent average gradient, maxing out at over 19 per cent.
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And while the descent back to Copacabana proved as decisive as the climb, with even Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) – who was leading the race at the time – crashing out, the reprieve on the short descent 4km into the climb was enough to let some of the lesser climbers back into the race.
But for a Classics rider like Van Avermaet, who rode superbly to hold on to the back of the main group over the top, there had to be a risk of losing it all to stand a chance of taking gold.
The Belgian’s victory begs the question though: how would Peter Sagan have fared on this course?
The two have been tightly matched this season; going head-to-head to the line at the likes of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico this year, sharing similar qualities in their ability to get over climbs and put in a fast finish.
But after a reconnaissance of the Rio course back in January, Sagan decided the route would be too tough for him, and has opted to ride the mountain bike cross-country instead, where he’s starting as an underdog.
We know Sagan can climb, he’s showed that on the biggest stage on the Tour de France, and his victories in the Tour of Flanders and the World Championships have proved that he’s one of the best over distances like the 237.5km of the Rio course.
While the race provided some unforgettable excitement – quite in contrast to some of the worlds and Olympic circuits over recent years – it was sad not to see Sagan, possibly the best all-round rider in the professional peloton right now, among the field.
Not only that, but the reduced teams and lack of radios plays into his hands. Slovakia had only one spot in the road race, but Sagan has the racing instinct and natural ability to thrive in that scenario; picking the right moves to follow and attacking at the right time just on gut feeling.
It’s testament to Sagan’s ability that he’s able to confidently switch to competing with more seasoned riders in the MTB, he was a junior world champion after all. But how must it have felt to watch a rider he’s been so closely matched with take gold?
“When I first saw the parcours I thought it would be on the limit of my skills and it was a really hard climb in the end,” Van Avermaet admitted in his post-race comments. “I just tried to believe in myself.”
Surely Sagan would have been on that limit too, and though his riding style and constant wheelies do nothing but show his seemingly endless confidence in his own abilities, it’s hard not to think he’s kicking himself now for not just taking the chance.
At 26-years-old, Sagan will surely be in line for an appearance at Tokyo 2020 if the course fits. He’ll be 30, ‘the peak years’ if you can actually believe he can get much better.
Athletes move on quickly, there’s always a new goal. But surely Sagan will be even more driven to make the next opportunities count after watching this one slip away from the sidelines.