Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) has taken a solo victory in the ninth edition of the Saitama Criterium in Japan, narrowly fending off Vuelta a España champion Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) in a drawn-out two-up sprint.
Peter Sagan (Legends Team), who retires from road racing this season, claimed the final podium spot in the 59.5-kilometre, 17-lap, city centre exhibition event.
The criterium came down to a three-way battle between Kuss, Pogačar and Sagan after the trio built up a lead in the closing kilometres.
Sagan faded, thus allowing Kuss to lead Pogačar under the flamme rouge, prior to a drawn-out two-up duel as the finish line approached.
As the two passed through a short tunnel, Pogačar eased into the forward position, providing a chance for Kuss to try to launch a surprise attack, which the Slovenian promptly crushed.
By this point, Sagan was threatening to regain contact, and Pogačar then made a drawn-out dash for the line, significantly varying his pace but ultimately allowing him to claim the victory several bike lengths ahead of Kuss.
Sagan retained his third place even as a crumbling main pack, spearheaded by Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan) closed in on the Slovak star.
The star-studded 51-rider field for the criterium in Saitama, a city some 30 kilometres outside Japanese capital Tokyo, also included Tour de France winners Chris Froome (Israel-Premier Tech) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) along with 2023 Tour de France King of the Mountains Giulio Ciccone (Lidl-Trek).
Third in the Singapore Criterium last week, Pogačar succeeds Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) as reigning Saitama Champion, simultaneously claiming his umpteenth triumph of the 2023 season in the process.