Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert were left empty-handed at the end of the UCI Road World Championships elite men's race in Bergen on Sunday. Van Avermaet claimed sixth in the bunch sprint and Gilbert 17th, as Peter Sagan (Slovakia) picked up his third straight title.
Both Belgians came into the race with high hopes of winning, their coach even joking that they could finish first and second, but on the final ascent up Salmon Hill, they were both exposed. Gilbert was the first rider to jump across to France's Julian Alaphilippe when he attacked but the Belgian was left trailing as the pocket-rocket climber unleashed a relentless pace.
Van Avermaet marked moves on the climb and when the bunch re-grouped for the sprint he was Belgium's best hope. Having come into the final race of these championships without a medal all eyes were on the BMC rider but he lost Sagan's wheel on the apex of the final corner and was unable to come back into contention.
"In the end, we all saved it for the last climb," Van Avermaet said.
"I had good legs and was following Michael Valgren. He stopped a bit and then Alaphilippe went really fast. I tried to follow at my own pace to the top but I couldn't follow. After that we had a nice group and Denmark was riding well to get the bunch together but there were so many attacks – Phil tried and I wanted to save myself for the sprint but I wasn't in a good position so couldn't be up there with Peter and Kristoff. I'm disappointed for sure and I expected more but I did my best. It just wasn't good enough."
Belgium's tactics were spot on before the final climb. They posted Julien Vermote on the front for the opening half of the race and then sent Tim Wellens up the road to control the second break of the race. A crash halted Jens Keukeleire's and two other Belgians' progress on the final climb but both Gilbert and Van Avermaet were where they needed to be when the attacks came.
"It was a hard course to get away. It was really fast. I was thinking that it could be a sprint but if Alaphilippe had stayed in front by a few more seconds it would have been a different winner. That's how racing goes.
"It was all in at that point on the final climb. Everyone wanted to get over the climb in a good position. When Phil went I followed Valgren but a lot of guys came back and Denmark pulled it all back.
"In the sprint, I was on the wheel of Peter but I lost it a bit on the last corner. I was a bit too far back after that and it meant I was just left to sprint for a top-ten position.
"Phil was strong but like me, he couldn't follow Alaphilippe so then we had to try and still do the best race possible with the legs that you had. He tried to attack, I tried for the sprint but that's how it goes sometimes. That's racing and you have to just be happy with how you did."
Sixth and 17th was scant reward for a day of attacking and measured racing but Van Avermaet tipped his hat to Sagan. In the last few seasons the two have enjoyed a healthy rivalry on the bike and Van Avermaet has become one of the few riders able to compete with the Slovakian. Today, however, he acknowledged that the better rider had won.
"Sagan again. I have to say congratulations to him. He knows how hard it is to be world champion and now he's done it three times in a row. That's something special and he's one of the strongest guys of the generation."