The route of Grand Prix Cyclistes de Québec is very nearly unique in the world of cycling. It is entirely a circuit race, with riders complete 16 laps of a 12.6 kilometre course for 201.6 km of racing. The parcours is littered with punchy climbs with gradients that reached up to ten percent, with a famous final uphill drag to the line often the spot where the winner emerges.
The circuit takes riders along the St Lawrence River and through the Old Town of Quebec City, with two climbs on each lap. Despite rain during the week, and forecasts of further precipitation, race day was dry and sunny.
A small breakaway of four riders went clear halfway into the first lap. Tyler Williams (Israel Cycling Academy) launched the attack and was quickly joined by Pier-Andre Cote (Team Canada), Baptiste Planckaert (Katusha Alpecin) and Tosh Van Der Sande (Lotto Soudal). The gap had grown to over nine minutes after 40 kilometres of racing, when the peloton finally began to chase, but they had only pulled back a minute by the 100 kilometre mark.
However, the break was tiring, and as the race entered the final five laps the gap began to shrink rapidly with Bora, BMC and Sunweb at the front, with Cote the first to drop off the break. Williams was the next to drop with a little more than two laps to go, and the gap went under one minute for the remaining two riders left at the front. At 16 kilometres to go the final rider - Planckaert - was caught, with the peloton together at the start of the final lap.
Despite multiple attacks over the final climb, the remaining bunch of over 50 riders was still intact with five kilometres to go.
Coming into the finish, Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) launched his now traditional final kilometre attack, one of which saw him take a memorable win back in 2015. His attack was quickly contained this time and it came down to who was willing to suffer the most and push the fastest on the final kick to the line.
Sagan launched hard down the right, with van Avermaet following as Matthews came from behind to try and latch onto the wheel. Ultimately the reigning world champion showed his strength to take the win, with the other two unable to catch up in the final few metres.
Sagan was particularly happy to take out his 100th win in the GP de Quebec, with its storied history now forming a big part of the Canadian racing block alongside the GP Montreal and the Tour of Alberta.
“It’s very nice. One hundred is some special number,” said Sagan. “Maybe better if you can live 100 years! Well, it’s very nice but it’s never enough you know. Because one time you are happy with something, and you don’t grow up. You have to grow up always.”
"It was a little bit like last year with the same result, almost. The style of the race was also very similar. We went into the last kilometre, and Roberto (Uran) attacks like he [usually] does . We went for the sprint in the last 100 metres. It was a headwind in the final, but I decided I had to start at 200 metres ... I don't know for sure. It is a very long sprint with the last kilometre being an uphill."
Van Avermaet echoed Sagan's comments: "It was a pretty similar race to last year. I lost Sagan's wheel a little when he went, and I couldn't have come past him, so I am pretty happy about my race. I would love to win here but second is not too bad. I am happy with my shape now, and the team did a great job to put me in a good position on the final climbs. Maybe with a little extra luck, I can win here."
"For me, the most important thing is that I still have a lot of power in my legs over the last kilometre and from there, whether you win or not, is all in the details. Today I was second, and hopefully, when we go to Montreal, I can repeat the same result (a win) as last year."
Matthews will go into the world championships as Australia's main hope for the win and was happy to show his form was good heading into Bergen.
“The team worked really hard today,” said Matthews. “The race was a little bit too easy because of the wind but the guys did a great job. Tom (Dumoulin) took me from one kilometre to go and did the lead out for me. I just missed that little bit extra to make it a winning sprint but I feel like I get stronger with each race back again.”