“Results don’t matter. The important thing is to put on a show.”
Peter Sagan to RAI after the 2017 Milan-Sanremo
Cycling requires commitment, effort and suffering. Peter Sagan appears to convert that into casual speed and joy. When he should be grimacing in a winning solo effort, he casually rests over his handlebars with the insouciance of a man leaning on a park bench.
At moments where he ought to be too knackered to celebrate victory, he pops a wheelie over the finish line. In a serious sport for skinny loners, Sagan invites everyone to smile with him. He makes professional cycling fun.
Sagan possesses a devastating mix of weapons. Technically, he has breathtaking bunch craft and bike handling. Athletically, he is as versatile as his many haircuts, able to challenge for all but the hilliest Classics and Grand Tour general classifications. Aesthetically, he brings indie freshness to this fusty sport with his motocross sunglasses and rock band looks.
Then there are the wheelies and mischievous victory celebrations, referencing everything from dance moves to the Wolf of Wall Street. Like Jimi Hendrix and his guitar, the bike is Sagan’s trusty tool for vibrant self-expression. At his finest, the two are at one.
“It’s funny … All those seconds are almost impossible. You have to be one time first or third, no?”
Sagan after winning stage three of the 2015 Vuelta
To borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s comment on the golfer Jack Nicklaus, what makes Sagan outstanding is not his occasional greatness, but how consistently good he has been, season in, season out, since turning pro in 2010.
He has achieved top tens in breakaways and from bunch sprints, in cobbled and hilly Classics, flat or punchy finishes, time-trials – and even flitted between Olympic mountain biking and road racing. In this era of specialisation in professional cycling, Peter Sagan is probably the closest thing to Eddy Merckx that we will see.
It’s easy to underrate the required constitution and drive to do this. Throughout his career, Sagan has seemed remarkably resistant to the trappings of fame, the inflation of ego, the headache of having Oleg Tinkov as a boss and long-term injury.
His hardest challenge, and necessary evolution, has been finding a way to win when every rival is watching him. Because by the time Sagan’s stamina and experience was developed to contend for Classics, fellow contenders had grown wise to his threat. During 2014 and 2015, he was maligned for finishing second and third with astonishing regularity. Over those years, he took a dozen podium spots without winning a Tour stage or Monument.
His resounding Tour of Flanders triumph in 2016 was a liberation of pressure, but the same problem still remains for the Slovakian.
Despite 100 wins, Sagan should probably have done better in the sport’s biggest races. Eight Tour de France stages, three* World Championships and one Monument title are still slim pickings for someone with his ability. Over the years, he has made several tactical or technical errors at crucial moments.
Yet that’s a perverse reason for his popularity. When he loses, in spite of his apparent superiority, it keeps races exciting for everyone watching. Take his second place at Milan-Sanremo this spring: he was seen as the moral victor after forcing the race’s key move over the Poggio with a monstrous acceleration, even if Michal Kwiatkowski timed his sprint better.
“In life, there are more important things than this race.”
Sagan after stage 10 of the 2016 Tour de France
In champions like Merckx, Hinault and Cavendish, the burning desire to win is paramount, visible in their faces. Sagan resists such obvious decoding.
At times – mainly after defeats – he gives the impression that this doesn’t matter, repeating oblique variations of “it’s only bike racing”, giving the impression that he could just as easily disappear into the forest to, presumably, become a carpenter or a skateboarding champion; that cycling needs him more than he needs it.
But of course, results matter deeply to him. “He always behaves decently in front of the cameras, but later, back in his hotel room, the door locks and even his wife Katarina won’t be able to reach him,” his coach Milan Zanicky told Dutch newspaper NRC. “Peter will emerge again later. Let’s just say a lot of energy is released. He can be like a small child.”
Peter Sagan is like a pedalling Peter Pan, the protagonist of a fairytale who won his first race on a girls’ supermarket bike in an obscure land (no offence, Slovakians) and has become the champion who never seems to grow up.
He is still an underdeveloped role model. The podium hostess bottom pinch after the 2013 Tour of Flanders spoiled his breakthrough result. He could say far more against doping in these times of justified scepticism too. There should be more substance to go with Sagan’s style. But that’s the downside of a man who rejects doing what he is expected to do.
What next for the 27-year-old? Breaking the Tour’s green jersey record and adding to his lone Monument win seems a certainty.
If he maintains this success rate for another seven years, it will be difficult to stay popular: the status quo gets boring, however exciting the purveyor.
His five consecutive Tour de France points classification wins throttled it as a competition. It was only after Sagan’s contentious disqualification early in the 2017 edition that people started complaining – not just about the nature of his exit, but the fact that the sport’s biggest festival was missing its headlining rock star.
You don’t know what you got till it’s gone, so enjoy Sagan while he’s still at his dazzling best. As his rivals know from many race finales, he is a hard act to follow.
*This article was updated on Sept 25 to acknowledge Sagan’s third elite men’s world championship title.