In the crowded elevator that took him to the post-race press conference in the Château Laurier hotel, a fellow passenger congratulated Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) on his performance.
"For what? Second place?" Sagan deadpanned, but any disappointment at missing out on victory at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec was lightly worn. "What can you do?"
Two weeks out from the World Championships, and in just his second race since the Tour de France, the Slovakian will have been reassured by a display that saw him join an elite cadre of attackers on the final lap and then, after they were caught, muster up enough of a sprint to claim second place behind Michael Matthews (Sunweb).
Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) had tracked a determined acceleration from Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) on the Côte de la Potasse with a little over two kilometres to go, and they were soon joined by Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) and Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott).
That quintet had the pedigree to go the distance but, as is so often the case in such circumstances, lacked the lasting collaboration to do so. They passed beneath the flamme rouge with a lead of a handful of seconds on the reduced peloton, but that buffer gradually melted as, one by one, Sagan, Alaphilippe, Van Avermaet and then Ulissi thought better of taking long turns on the front. They were caught with 400 metres remaining. So it goes.
"Today, if we cooperated a little better in the front, for sure we were going to come [to the finish]," Sagan said. "It was just four big names in the front, and everybody was just thinking about how to flick another. They don't pull and the peloton came back. But yeah. It's the race. What can you do? Either you're alone or you have this problem. That's how it is."
Sagan's assessment was echoed by Van Avermaet, who summoned the strength to go again in the final 200 metres and claim the third spot on the podium ahead of Ulissi. The Olympic champion was not altogether surprised at how the momentum ebbed from the break on the final climb towards the finish line.
"When we were still away with 700 metres to go, there's a bit of a choice: to go full and maybe have no result or wait and have the peloton come back," Van Avermaet said. "I was really worried because we did more effort than other years there, so there was a lot of lactate in the legs and it was hard to make a result. In the end, I was happy to be still able to do a good sprint and finish on the podium."
Alaphilippe, for his part, opted to open his sprint from distance when the break was caught, but his effort faded well short of the line, and he had to make do with seventh place and the prize for the day's best climber.
Like Sagan and Van Avermaet, he showed little frustration as he waited behind the podium, laughing uproariously as he watched a video of his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Rémi Cavagna accidentally dousing himself in champagne while celebrating his stage victory on the Vuelta a España earlier on Friday.
Earlier this week, Alaphilippe told reporters that anything he achieves in the coming weeks would be "a bonus" given the year he has enjoyed to date, but the ferocity of his acceleration on the final lap in Quebec indicated that he won't be far off garlanding his season with a rainbow jersey in Yorkshire.
"I'm happy that I could follow Alaphilippe when he attacked. His attack was really hard," Van Avermaet said. "I think I made good decisions today and although it's not a win, it's always good to finish on the podium. I think my condition is there and to follow those guys on a parcours like this is almost the most important."
It has ever been thus at the GP de Québec and GP de Montréal, events that have established themselves this past decade as the dress rehearsal of choice for men with designs on landing the rainbow jersey. "It feels like a World Championships," said the eventual winner Matthews, another rider who burnished his credentials for September 29.
Matthews, Sagan, Van Avermaet, Alaphilippe et al will have an even more bracing pre-Worlds run-out in Montreal on Sunday. This year, the race will feature two additional laps of the circuit through the Parc du Mont-Royal, bringing the total altitude gain to 4,734 metres.
"I think it is super hard and I am happy they added some laps," said Van Avermaet, winner of the race three years ago. "Thinking about the Worlds and now with more altitude metres, it is a really good test. I am happy with the result from today, but I think Sunday can be a really nice training to prepare for the Worlds."
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