IN­TER­VIEW: PETER SA­GAN

Peter Sa­gan is the clos­est thing cy­cling has to a box o ce star and his pop­u­lar­ity has never been higher. But as Pro­cy­cling found out when it met him at the Tour de Suisse, be­hind the rock star im­age is a rider grap­pling with the ex­tra de­mands rac­ing make

Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer Sam Dansie Por­traits Chris Auld

Pro­cy­cling meets with cy­cling’s big­gest, most bank­able and in­creas­ingly most elu­sive star

Peter Sa­gan is mad­den­ing. He’s also cy­cling’s hottest com­mod­ity, its most ex­cit­ing star, the only ticket in town. Races are des­per­ate for him and fans can’t get enough of him. At the Tour de Suisse in mid-June, there was a per­fectly or­di­nary-look­ing bloke in his 30s who had a tat­too of Sa­gan on his calf. This is now the ninth year of Sa­gan’s ca­reer and the alchemy of his multi-lay­ered tal­ent as a racer and his char­ac­ter as a per­son, con­tinue to make the atoms in cy­cling’s lit­tle uni­verse vi­brate in un­usual ways.

Sa­gan had a great Tour de France. He was an om­nipo­tent pres­ence. He won three stages and wore the yel­low jersey for one day. He fin­ished in the top 10 in ev­ery stage apart from in the high moun­tains and time tri­als. His points haul in the green jersey com­pe­ti­tion was the largest of his six wins. And af­ter tear­ing it up on the road he’d be wise­crack­ing in the mixed zone. At Mûrde-Bre­tagne, where he fin­ished eighth, he was asked if he could have been higher. “No, it’s good for the other teams to win, right? It’s not so bor­ing!”

In April, at the sev­enth at­tempt, he won Paris-Roubaix with a 54km raid that at first stunned the race group and broke its will. He be­came the first rider since Bernard Hin­ault to win the race in the world cham­pion’s jersey. And then he pre­tended to drop the cob­ble tro­phy. He’s a card, peo­ple think.

But he’s mad­den­ing be­cause he’s a devil in the set piece in­ter­view th­ese days. Get­ting hold of him is one thing. His man­ager ex­plains that over the past eight or nine months, in­ter­view op­por­tu­ni­ties have been pared back to stave off Sa­gan’s big­gest en­emy: bore­dom. Those in­ter­views that he does as­sent to he con­ducts with a force field of in­dif­fer­ence around him. Ask him what you like about rac­ing and about the sport – even about some­thing so seis­mic as be­ing kicked out of the Tour for an in­frac­tion for which he was later ex­on­er­ated – and the eyes glaze over and some words about ‘the past be­ing the past’ come out.

“If it’s some­body’s talk­ing to you about some­thing that’s not in­ter­est­ing it just passes through your head with­out stay­ing in,” Sa­gan says, when Pro­cy­cling spoke to him at the back of the Bora-Hans­grohe bus on the last stage of the Tour de Suisse, and tried to es­tab­lish some sub­ject mat­ter on which he wouldn’t clam up and might shed some light on his care­fully guarded hin­ter­land. If rac­ing talk won’t pro­voke an in­ter­est, what other in­ter­ests might may do so? Dogs and cars? We know he likes them.

“A lot of things in­ter­est me. Fam­ily, friends, hob­bies... You can al­ways look for­ward to them when you have some free time and, well, we’re do­ing this nice job and I think we can have fun also on the bike and off the bike.” Nope, it’s just words again. It’s un­der­stood though. Every­body wants a piece of the triple world cham­pion, and the more peo­ple want, the less there is to go around. Or maybe he had just wrung it all out for his up­com­ing book, which fo­cuses heav­ily on his rac­ing ca­reer, and there’s noth­ing left to give.

But how about Amer­ica? He loves the place. He’s been go­ing there ev­ery year since 2010 for the Tour of Cal­i­for­nia. This

year, for the first time, the self-styled King of Cal­i­for­nia didn’t win a stage. Younger men, Caleb Ewan and Fer­nando Gaviria, were faster. As the op­por­tu­ni­ties to add to his 16 stage wins dwin­dled, Sa­gan said, “I’d be very happy if I win some stages here. If not, I am happy to be here, to have good train­ing, and to visit Cal­i­for­nia and have a good stay here.”

His affin­ity with Amer­i­cana ex­presses it­self in sparky ways, like the spoof Grease video he made with his now ex-wife, Kata­rina, in the win­ter of 2015; or the ren­o­va­tion of a 1970s Dodge Charger, a car he fell for while watch­ing the Duke­sof Haz­zard as a child. On the pre-Tour al­ti­tude camps that fol­low on af­ter Cal­i­for­nia, he’s not on the look­out for an ar­ti­sanal café serv­ing mashed av­o­cado on rye, but a diner serv­ing dirty burg­ers and bur­ri­tos. And that’s at stops dur­ing the train­ing ride.

“I al­ways wanted to go to Amer­ica when I was young,” Sa­gan ex­plains. For the hy­per­ac­tive kid whose par­ents ran a gro­cery shop in snowy, in­dus­trial Zilina, “Amer­ica was some­thing dif­fer­ent. I went to Cal­i­for­nia for the first time in 2010. I’d never been be­fore and it was so dif­fer­ent to what I had ex­pe­ri­enced. Well, I’d been for the Ju­nior Road World Cham­pi­onships in Mex­ico at Aguas­calientes [2007] and we passed through Hous­ton, but that was just in the air­port, not re­ally Amer­ica. But even that was ex­cit­ing for me.”

He adds: “I did one hol­i­day in Amer­ica where I trav­elled about. I’d been to New York, Las Ve­gas and the Grand Canyon and af­ter that I started go­ing to Amer­ica a lot to the big cy­cling ar­eas like Utah and Colorado. I go there ev­ery year just for train­ing and I re­ally love it. I don’t know if I was to live there it would be dif­fer­ent. Maybe I would want to go else­where.

“But now with all the trav­el­ling and races I don’t even know where I am. I stay in a ho­tel and I don’t know if it’s Bel­gium or Amer­ica or France or here in Switzer­land. It’s too much,” he says re­gret­fully.

And now per­haps Amer­ica of­fers him some­thing that’s rarer in Europe. In the States’ wide-open spa­ces and amid a sports fan-base who are mostly un­fa­mil­iar with his ex­ploits, he finds peace and quiet.

On the sur­face, Sa­gan seems to be a lov­able tear­away liv­ing the en­vi­able, In­sta­grammable life of a global no­mad. But as the com­ment about travel shows and the re­luc­tance to do lots of me­dia at­tests, it grinds his gears too. “Each sea­son takes a lot of en­ergy from him,” his man­ager Gabriele Uboldi says. “Eighty five per cent of the in­ter­views Peter does he finds bor­ing.”

At the core of it, Sa­gan’s ma­tur­ing. It’s ap­par­ent when he dusts off the old trope that re­spect in the pelo­ton died out when he was learn­ing the ropes. It’s a theme that seems to pass down from one star rider to

“Now with all the trav­el­ling and races I don’t even know where I am. I stay in a ho­tel and I don’t know if it’s Bel­gium or Amer­ica or France. It’s too much”

the next. Tom Boo­nen was bang­ing the same drum in 2012. Sa­gan says: “Cy­cling has changed a lot. It’s not like 15 years ago when Cipollini was the big boss in the group. It’s not like it was be­fore when some­one led the whole group. I think re­spect in the group has dis­ap­peared. Every­body’s watch­ing them­selves.”

Suf­fused through the homily there’s a sense Sa­gan doesn’t have to think too hard about the end of his ca­reer. Nes­tled in his re­flec­tions he says, “I have some friends in the group – real friends – among the rid­ers and that means we can have fun… but ev­ery year [the ero­sion of re­spect] is worse and worse. I’m very happy that there are only one, two or three years left, be­cause if I have to keep go­ing in this kind of cy­cling for 15 years, it’s im­pos­si­ble.”

Hang on. One, two or pos­si­bly three years left? Should we be worried that by the end of 2021, when Sa­gan will still be just 31, we’ll be rem­i­nisc­ing over his ca­reer in full? It turns out Sa­gan was ex­ag­ger­at­ing. By how much is the ques­tion. Sa­gan came close to pack­ing in road rac­ing in his first, dif­fi­cult sea­son at Tinkoff, the co-writer of his new book, John Deer­ing, has re­vealed.

Uboldi con­cedes, “Peter’s only think­ing about his con­tract and then when he’s fin­ished this he will de­cide if he goes back to moun­tain bik­ing or stays, but for sure we’re not think­ing about re­tire­ment. Per­son­ally, I don’t think he will have a long ca­reer like other sprint­ers. But if noth­ing bad hap­pens we will have Peter for an­other five or six years. I will con­vince him any­way – I need to pay the rent on my house!”

Patxi Vila, Sa­gan’s coach, says he wouldn’t be sur­prised if he did call it a day be­fore what might be con­sid­ered his full term. Sa­gan turned pro at 19, so he’s got a year or so on most of his con­tem­po­raries. “What I know is that it’s re­ally, re­ally hard to be Peter Sa­gan. What I see in races is that it’s a lot of stress and en­ergy,” Vila says.

Maybe this year has been even more stress­ful than usual. At the end of last year, Sa­gan’s son Mar­lon was born. “I’m very happy to be­come a fa­ther and I’m al­ways look­ing for­ward to when I can see him,” Sa­gan tells Pro­cy­cling. “It’s some­thing nice in life. He’s dif­fer­ent, the feel­ing I have in­side about my son is much dif­fer­ent to the feel­ing for my fa­ther, mother or brother – hav­ing a son is some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Dur­ing the Tour, Sa­gan an­nounced that he and Kata­rina were get­ting di­vorced, but on friendly terms. The an­nounce­ment was trig­gered when Slo­vakian pa­per NovyCas was sent an anony­mous let­ter ac­com­pa­nied by what Sa­gan de­scribed as made-up reasons for the split. Asked at the Tour de Suisse, be­fore the news was pub­lic, whether he found it hard to stay pos­i­tive in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, he says, “Some­times. Some­times you can have a hard time in life and worry about the things com­ing and then ev­ery­thing’s okay; but if things start to get harder then it could be hard. Un­til now, ev­ery­thing seems okay…”

Sa­gan in­sists the old idea of pelo­ton capo is out­dated. He’s prob­a­bly right be­cause if there was one, he would prob­a­bly be the re­luc­tant post-holder. But his in­flu­ence in the Bora team is strong. When Pro­cy­cling as­cended the steps of the bus on the af­ter­noon of the Tour de Suisse’s clos­ing TT in Bellinzona, we were struck by how much the out­fit bore his fin­ger­prints. Most of the team that day, in­ured to the in­tru­sion of an­other face from the crowd who’d come to meet their leader, sat near the front thumb­ing their phones.

Four of them, Ju­raj Sa­gan, Ma­ciej Bod­nar, Daniel Oss and Mar­cus Burghardt ar­rived with or af­ter Sa­gan in 2017. Uboldi hov­ered within earshot. Out­side, Vila helped keep the daily op­er­a­tion go­ing. And not far away would have been the Sa­gan RV, the branded up over­sized camper­van in which the Sa­gan broth­ers’ fa­ther, the inim­itable L’ubomír, fol­lows them around Europe. The whole op­er­a­tion feels calmer and slicker than his pre­vi­ous team, Tinkoff, where Sa­gan shared headliner sta­tus with Al­berto Con­ta­dor. The pair had to suck up the off-the-wall commentary of owner, Oleg Tinkov, whose state­ments were of­ten as lurid as the team’s flu­o­res­cent yel­low buses.

Sa­gan raises from his slouch amid the jumble of TT hel­mets that bear the slashy S of Spe­cial­ized and nods in agree­ment. “Sure. And it’s not just rid­ers, it’s soigneurs and me­chan­ics and Gabriele,” he says. “I can’t imag­ine I could go to a dif­fer­ent team alone now. It would be very hard. I ap­pre­ci­ate the fact I have been able to

“Cy­cling has changed a lot. It’s not like 15 years ago when Cipollini was the big boss in the group. It’s not like it was be­fore when some­one led the whole group. I think re­spect has dis­ap­peared. Every­body’s watch­ing them­selves”

“I think disc brakes are re­ally good - you can con­trol much bet­ter - but I said, ‘ We all use disc brakes or no­body’”

bring this team to­gether. There was only one team that could make this big favour for me: this one.”

We won­der what sort of a leader he is. “Well, it de­pends,” he says. He cites Bora’s rel­a­tively late adop­tion of disc brakes. Un­til

Suisse, he had re­sisted us­ing them despite think­ing they of­fered an ad­van­tage. “Per­son­ally, I wasn’t go­ing to use disc brakes just be­cause it’s me,” he says. “I think they’re re­ally good – you can con­trol much bet­ter – but I said, ‘We all use disc brakes or no­body.’”

At 28, the Slo­vakian should now be in the best years of his ca­reer. At the time of writ­ing he’s up to 109 wins. Sa­gan is cer­tainly in that phase now where the wins and suc­cesses are start­ing to pile up. In the last 12 months, he has won his sec­ond Québec GP, third Worlds road race, third Gent-Wevel­gem, 16th Tour de Suisse stage, sixth na­tional road ti­tle, 11th Tour stage and his sixth green jersey. He added Roubaix to his Flan­ders ti­tle this year and now there are few out­stand­ing ob­jec­tives where a maiden vic­tory is re­quired. Mi­lan-San Remo is the big one which has proved frus­trat­ingly elu­sive to him. He’s fin­ished in the top 10 on six out of eight starts. There’s surely no doubt that Am­s­tel Gold Race comes within his range, too. More pedan­ti­cally, there are a few mi­nor Clas­sics miss­ing: Om­loop Het Nieuws­blad, Dwars door Vlaan­deren and Paris-Tours. And by favour­ing the Tour of Cal­i­for­nia so com­pletely he’s still to make his de­but at the Giro.

“Tom Boo­nen is a good match in terms of phys­i­ol­ogy and the type of rider Peter is,” Vila says. “I’d also say that in terms of win­ning style Peter is also get­ting close to Tom too. Look at Tom, he was win­ning mass sprints when he was fast and then he be­came more of an en­durance rider.”

Boo­nen fell out of love with bunch sprint­ing. By 2012 he said some sprint­ers had be­come “kamikazes”. “When it is too dan­ger­ous, I just don’t take part in it,” he said. On cur­rent anal­y­sis, Sa­gan, hasn’t been af­flicted by the same thoughts for the con­se­quences. He was top three in ev­ery bunch sprint in the open­ing week of the Tour, and at least top 10 through to the end.

Vila has said in the past, re­mark­ably, that pure speed is not one of Sa­gan’s most nat­u­ral weapons, but that his high fin­ishes come in­stead from his strength and abil­ity to get to the fi­nale feel­ing fresher than his com­peti­tors. Th­ese qual­i­ties he be­lieves should linger and maybe even grow deeper. “I’d say we can ex­pect more long-range at­tacks in the Clas­sics,” says the coach when asked if Sa­gan’s 54km es­cape to win Roubaix is part of that pat­tern. “That’s not just about his phys­i­ol­ogy, but also be­cause at the mo­ment he is one of the most fol­lowed wheels. He’s the light­house of the bunch. The longer you wait the harder it is for you to get rid of your ri­vals.

“He’s get­ting re­sults and per­form­ing well, so why should we try to change him and per­haps lose the su­per rider that he is?”

The last time Pro­cyling met Sa­gan was in Au­gust 2016 at the GP Plouay. He re­vealed more of him­self then. Maybe at the Tour de Suisse we caught him on an off day. Or the ques­tions bored him, or there were things go­ing on in the back­ground that were dis­tract­ing him. But then, does it mat­ter? What Sa­gan says comes a dis­tant sec­ond to what he does. That the cam­era loves him is enough. His ap­peal is rooted firmly in his rac­ing, his phys­i­cal­ity, the reper­toire of his range and his vir­tu­os­ity. He’s the 4k Ul­tra High-Def racer in rainbow stripes. Words and fine thoughts are what most other rid­ers have to try and close the gap. He’s cy­cling’s Hol­ly­wood rider.

REG­U­LARS

Sa­gan smiles as he pulls on the yel­low jersey af­ter vic­tory at stage 2 of the Tour

On the way to a de­but mon­u­ment vic­tory in the Tour of Flan­ders in 2016

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