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 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  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.
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