Greg Van Avermaet's sprint victory in Cepagatti gave him Peter Sagan's scalp yet again, the race leader's blue jersey and a possibly decisive advantage before Tuesday's final time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico.
The BMC rider rode a perfect finale on the finishing circuits in Cepagatti. He was outnumbered and isolated with Sagan, who had two Tinkoff teammates, and race leader Zdenek Stybar, who also had two Etixx-QuickStep teammates in the attack. However with fellow overall contenders and teammates Damiano Caruso and Tejay van Garderen in the chasing peloton, Van Avermaet knew he was able to sit on and save his effort for the sprint.
Sagan was determined to finally win a race after splitting the peloton but made the vital error of starting his sprint too early. Van Avermaet blew past him to win the stage and take the winner's ten-second time bonus. The Belgian now leads Zdenek Stybar by seven seconds, with Sagan third overall at eight seconds. Everything will be decided in Tuesday's 10.1km time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto.
"I was alone from BMC and so I tried to save my energy as much as possible," a beaming Van Avermaet said in the post-race press conference.
"They were riding hard because it was a hard, fast circuit. We got 30 seconds and so I knew we could make it to finish and that it'd be a sprint. I'm pretty good in uphill sprints like that and so I'm really happy to beat Peter Sagan on a finish like this.
"I'm usually the guy who does a lot of work but this time it was different. It was not the best situation to be in at first but I knew I could profit from it. They rode strong and so I tried to stay easy and wait for the sprint. I'm always been confidence that I had a fast sprint finish, especially after a hard race. But sometimes you have to really fight for position in the sprints and cycling is hard business and you've got to look after yourself. I sprinted for myself in the early years of my career and then helped other riders on flat sprints."
Van Avermaet once struggled to win races and was often beaten by Peter Sagan. Now their roles have switched, with Sagan becoming the eternal, frustrated and angry second. Van Avermaet is naturally proud to have beaten the world champion.
"I tried to beat him in Richmond but he beat me there, so it was nice to beat him today," Van Avermaet said. "He's got the jersey and he's a great rider because he attacks and animates the race. I like that. I hope that he wins a lot of races this year but it's nice to have him finish second behind me."
From a deficit to an advantage
Van Avermaet's smart riding and the time bonuses he gathered as a result meant he turned a nine-second deficit at the start of the stage into a seven-second advantage. He will start last in the time trial but have to watch out for Stybar, Sagan and especially Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep), who slipped to 21 seconds down but remains a threat.
"I took two seconds in the sprint and then ten seconds for winning the stage, so I'm pretty happy with my day," Van Avermaet said.
"I've got an advantage now after being at a disadvantage yesterday. We'll see how far I can go. I think Jungels and Stybar and Sagan are the threats. We'll see. I'll focus on myself because a time trial is all about yourself. I had a good TT on the same course last year, so hopefully I'm can do the same kind of effort."
"Jungels is my main rival so it's good to gain that time on him. I don't know what happened to Tejay [he lost 1:20 and slipped to 26th overall – ed]. We'll see who is the best tomorrow."
Van Avermaet knows he is faced with a unique opportunity to win Tirreno-Adriatico after the cancellation of the big mountain stage eliminated the best stage racers in the race.
"I've never been in this position and I don't think I ever will be again, so I have to go for it. I'm kind of lucky to wear the jersey and now I just hope to take home the nice trophy."