It's not yet clear how many days remain in this 2020 season, but Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) wasn't taking any chances. Whether this Giro d'Italia finishes in Milan or somewhere closer along the line, his opportunities to end his long drought without a victory were dwindling.
Stage 10 from Lanciano to Tortoreto Lido seemed to run right through what might be termed 'Sagan Country' – a series of short, sharp hills familiar from Tirreno-Adriatico that would see off the pure sprinters. Plenty of stages up to now had offered favourable terrain, too, and still, the Slovakian couldn't quite catch a break.
It was 461 days from his last victory - a stage on the 2019 Tour de France - when Sagan finally raised his arms in triumph on Tuesday on the seafront in Tortoreto after a tumultuous day of racing. Having battled to earn his place in the day's early break, Sagan then saw off his companions on the succession of steep hills in the closing kilometres, while fending off an elite and fast-closing maglia rosa group on the run-in.
There are 113 other victories vying for the accolade on Sagan's palmarès, but this was, by any measure, among the most memorable wins of his career, both for its context and its execution. Sagan dropped Ben Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) with a crisp acceleration on the final muro and then kept his big ring turning over along the Adriatic coast to hold off the chasers.
"I'm happy to win a stage like that in the way that I won it," Sagan said. "It's a special win because it's a long time since I won. I had a lot of second and third places so it's special. And I have to thank the tifosi, too. I felt like I was at home, everybody was cheering for me."
Since the Giro d'Italia began in Sicily, a hat trick of second places on a variety of finales – at Agrigento, Villafranca Tirrena and Brindisi – were added to the litany of near misses since Sagan's last victory. On Tuesday, rather than wait for the finale, Sagan opted to try his luck in the break, even if the Groupama-FDJ team of maglia ciclamino Arnaud Démare were reluctant to let him in it.
"Winning the stage was only worth 25 points, so for sure today I didn't understand why Groupama were chasing me. I was 60 or 65 points down [on Démare]," Sagan said. "It was hard to get in the break today. Everybody pulled full gas to chase us."
The pursuit was just as high-octane in the closing kilometres at the end of a frenetic afternoon of racing that seemed informed by events earlier in the day. Mitchelton-Scott withdrew from the Giro after four staff members tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus during rest day testing, while Jumbo-Visma followed suit just before the start following confirmation of Steven Kruijswijk's positive test. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) has also left the race after testing positive for the coronavirus, raising questions about the permeability of the Giro 'bubble' and doubts about the durability of the Giro itself.
"The situation is what is it," Sagan said. "You know, we're already fortunate that we were able to restart the season with the races. Some races have been cancelled, like in Holland, but what can I say?
"I think the organiser is doing everything they can to protect us, we're inside a bubble. I don't want to think about it too much. It's something you can't change. You just keep wearing your mask and washing your hands.
"One day this difficult moment will pass for everyone, but it's not just us cyclists. It's you journalists, the restaurants that are closing, the whole population. There are lots of problems in the whole world. We can still race, so we're the last people who can complain."
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