The Swiss capital of Bern greeted the peloton with sunshine and fabulous views on Stage 16 of the Tour de France. However, the charging peloton had little time to drink the atmosphere in as they battled for position up a Classics-style final climb to the finish line - with Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) claiming his third stage victory in this race.
The final stage before the second rest day saw a relatively flat parcours, albeit with a technical lumpy finish reminiscent of the Spring Classics - presumably intended to set up Bern native Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) for a farewell victory.
However, Cancellara was unable to motor away in one of his trademark attacks this time, with Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Ramunas Navardauskas (Cannondale-Drapac) trying their luck instead. The leadouts of Giant-Alpecin - for a resurgent John Degenkolb - and IAM Cycling (for youngster Sondre Holst Enger) proved enough to peg them back and ensure that it would be a sprint finish, however.
Without organised trains, it was all about who had the power to make the difference and it looked like it was going to be Kristoff who would claim the win, only for the photo to show that a weaving Sagan had contrived to throw his wheel to the line ahead of the big Norwegian. The Katusha rider threw his bike late, perhaps a product of the hard sprint, as he had his head down all the way to the line.
Even Sagan didn't believe he had won - perhaps a product of coming second so many times in the last few years.
"I thought I was second until they came and told me I had won. It's unbelievable after so many times finishing second... the wheel turns, huh?" mused Sagan.
"I want to thank my team for the work they did all day. Then it was a crazy finale, very technical. Everyone wanted to be in my wheel. I think Kristoff made a mistake in the sprint. He jumped very late and that's how I won."
Kristoff was downbeat after the finish.
"I felt I had it but I was sprinting at my maximum and I didn’t really see the line until it was too late so my bike throw was also too late. Maybe that made the decision, I don’t know. It was a fast day," he said.
Sagan's victory clinches his hold on the green jersey, as he now leads nearest rival Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) by 114 points - an insurmountable margin with the remaining points on offer. There were no changes in the overall classification or the King of the Mountains competition.
How it happened
The break of the day took a only a short time to form, composed of a pair of Etixx-QuickStep riders: former world time trial champion Tony Martin and young phenomenon Julien Alaphillipe. Numerous other attacks attempted to bridge whilst the gap was under a minute, but found it impossible to match the sheer strength of Martin.
A group of four riders provided the most concerted effort to sneak across the gap, but Lawson Craddock (Cannondale-Drapac), Nicholas Edet (Cofidis), Timo Roosen (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and Vegard Breen (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) found Martin and Alaphillipe too strong and the peloton caught the unfortunate quartet with over 100 kilometres remaining.
From there, it became clear that no small group would catch the duo and the peloton let them go, with a maximum gap of six minutes building up midway through the stage.
An anti-climatic intermediate sprint saw Sagan allowed to roll across for third, with Cavendish drifting across for fourth. BMC Racinfg, Direct Energie, Tinkoff and Fortuneo-Vital Concept workhorses all combined their strength to drag the peloton back to the break.
With the outskirts of Berne approaching and the gap to the peloton under a minute, Alaphillipe decided that he had enough, dropping back to the peloton. Martin ploughed on solo, only to be caught a few kilometres later.
Serial attacker Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) then lit up the race with 21 kilometres remaining, driving hard to establish a gap that never got beyond 15 seconds, albeit proving very tough for the teams of the sprinters to bring back. The former world champion was eventually reeled in with 4.6 kilometres remaining.
IAM Cycling led through the technical section before the final ascent to the line and the pace was hot into the cobbled climb, ejecting a lot of riders from the rear of the front group. Only the hard men that normally contest the Spring Classics were left and it came down to a grueling sprint.
An interesting side note to Sagan's win is that Tinkoff team owner Oleg Tinkov told Belgian outlet Sporza that he would reconsider leaving cycling if the world champion won three stages at this Tour, which he has now done. There is no word yet on whether the eccentric team owner will follow through on that promise (or threat).