Ask Peter Sagan the humdrum bike racing questions and you usually get the same, unilluminating answers. He rejects what’s expected of him just as he defies comparison in a sport where he’s won practically every big race that could be expected of him.
Publicly, he doesn’t treat professional cycling like the centre of his universe, practicing what his chest tattoo (of himself as the Joker) preaches: “why so serious?”
Indeed. So we went off the beaten track with him, trying not be too serious. After stage six of the 2018 Vuelta a España, we sat down in a hotel backroom with Peter and his three-up entourage – Bora-Hansgrohe press officer Gabriele Uboldi, communication and commercial director Ralf Scherzer and his agent Giovanni Lombardi.
Together, they clinked glasses of beer after another hot day’s racing. Unorthodox in the abstemious world of professional cycling, but when you’re Sagan, you can do what you like. And he has, turning up at races with unshaved legs, shoulder-length hair and motocross goggles.
As we talk, the ghost of a smile occasionally appears on his face, usually when he thinks of a left-field answer. He is earnest, though his English is imperfect [where possible, we’ve left his responsesunedited, so his voice comes through – Ed]. He can be laconic, witty, philosophical and enigmatic, but never dull. No, Peter Sagan throws the conversation in as many surprising and deft directions as he does a road bike.
Where did you learn to wheelie, and what’s the longest one you’ve done?
At home on my street. I was 10, 11 years old. I was just trying, alone. I don’t know what the longest one I ever did is. I never did some competition about it. I did it always for fun.
When you were a kid, what’s the angriest your parents ever got with you?
I think my father was angriest on me when I wanted to change mountain bike-road bike for downhill bike, I wanted to stop with them and do just downhill. He was not angry, he was a little bit sad. But after, he stop it. He’s happy now, for sure! [entourage laughs] I was 13, maybe. First of all, he was sad but after he accepted my decision. After that, he saw some races and crashes and said ‘no’.
What’s the Slovakian food you miss the most?
Perkelt. It’s like homemade gnocchi with chicken, cream and red paprika. [He produces his mobile phone and shows several photographs.] It’s an all-season meal, you can also have it with pasta. My mum does a very good one. I think it’s popular in Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland… You can eat it with bread or rice too.
Do you have any recurring dreams?
Well, I live in my dream. Maybe it’s a little bit bigger than I expect…
Have you ever been starstruck?
Well, I had the actor [Leonardo] Di Caprio. I met him on an island in Tahiti [Bora Bora]. Then I just shake hands with him and I said ‘good job.’
And what did he say to you?
Ah, he don’t care but he said ‘thank you, thank you’ and he went.
Were you expecting to see him there?
No. But when I saw him, I wanted from my side to just shake hands and tell him ‘I am a fan of you.’ Every movie he’s done is a good movie, I think [Sagan has previously called the Wolf of Wall Street his favourite film].
What’s the worst hangover you ever had?
Hangover? I never had a hangover.
Gabriele Uboldi: Really. He is not human. He’s better with hangovers than wheelie-ing the bike. It’s just not right.
But why don’t you get one like everyone else?
Sagan: Maybe I got a hangover, but maybe I just managed and I steal a life off the next day [laughs].
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in a bike race?
I don’t know. Everything is normal now, you should have asked me first two years when I was pro.
Even when Heinrich Haussler passed you in the Tour de France, urinating? Pretty strange.
He did some stretching or something. I don’t know, he told me ‘I was not pissing.’ Mmm, thatis really strange: some riders are pissing on the people. Spectators. I don’t understand it.
Because there is never time that I am pissing from a bike, sometimes you have spectators. I am not very good in that, it’s better I stop. Oh, I don’t think it’s nice for spectators if I pee on the people. And then another thing, when there is a lot of people, I’m pissing in the bottle. Yeah, I put the bottle here [mimes putting an invisible bidon to left thigh] and I throw it out.
Have you ever thought about quitting cycling?
Oh yeah. A lot of times. [laughs] Like seriously… when I wanted to do downhill [as a teenager]. And then 2014, yeah. But the reasons and everything, you’re going to find in my book. And if I think about it a third time, I think I’m seriously going to quit.
You’ve said before: “I don’t care about victories, it’s more about the show … it doesn’t matter if I win or lose.” Can you explain that philosophy for people who don’t believe you?
Ah well, it could be also after the races what I won, the first level I was fighting for victories in everything. But now, I just want to enjoy. I don’t going to be stressed if I win or not. For sure, I doing my best. In preparation, in the races, I want to win. If I don’t win, it’s like that. Mathematically, you cannot win everything, right?
And we are racing 200 riders, always different competitors. We are not only ten. Could be a lot of things that affect the result: weather, technical problem, mistake in the race, crash.
But if you stop winning and start finishing tenth, eleventh, twelfth over a few years, your status and value will go down.
And also that is mathematical: we are getting older, young riders are coming. That’s life, right?
What is the stupidest question you’ve ever been asked? Hopefully not this interview…
If I’m going to win. What I think about the stages. What I am eating. How I recover.
Gabriele Uboldi: One day in Australia, they asked you how was your victory in Giro d’Italia [a race which Sagan has never done].
Sagan: Also, can you win the Tour de France? Always the same questions. Are you going for a fifth green jersey, do you think you are going to win it? I’ve already won six. Then we stop already our interview, because they don’t know what to ask or they don’t study before.
Is there a race you dream of doing? It can be any sport, doesn’t have to be cycling.
I did already a lot of competitions in my life, I don’t know if I want to compete again in some different sport. You have to learn everything from zero, you have to spend a lot of time, you have to be better, better, better, you have to get in shape also on the mountain bike if you want to do downhill – it’s not easy. Yeah, I can compete, but just to finish some race or something, not to be the best.
Maybe, yeah, everything is possible, but I don’t find in myself the drive to do that. I have a lot of hobbies, I can do my hobbies but also after my career, I want to live my life. I don’t want to be always a slave of something. I have to do or I have to show to people I am able to do this? It’s not my… priority.
So what is your big hobby at the moment?
Could be also some hobby that I never did.
You are waiting to discover it?
Yeah. I can learn, I dunno, surfing, I can go on snowboard, on motocross or something. I can have a lot of things: ice hockey, or something. And… I don’t know, I tried golf once. And I like it, but I am not very good. Maybe I can get better later. I played it two years ago in Lake Tahoe. First, they gave me the club and you go to learn because you never play, you have to just hit the ball and how far is going? And after half an hour, I tried to do all the holes but it was difficult.
What’s the last time you cried?
At the funeral of [Michele] Scarponi. It was a very sad moment for me. Never after a bike race, I was more angry but not crying [when I was younger]. The angriest? A good moment was after the mountain bike race at the Rio Olympics [entourage laughs]. Because it was a closed area without people, I could do something but… Gabriele stopped me. I wanted to break my power box.
Gabriele Uboldi: He tried to destroy everything. With a Tacx roller. A long one.
A serious weapon.
Sagan: Giovanni Lombardi was inside the camper and [in one moment], after he was outside without opening the door!
Have you ever had any pets?
I had a Beagle called Charlie. We’d go walking, I also brought him on my scooter, in between my legs. But after I gave him to a good family in Slovakia: it was impossible to maintain him, I was always out. That was four years ago. My friend from Australia, he give me an ostrich for a wedding present. And her name was Eugenia [laughs]. Then after, when I was young, I had also a parrot. And I had a horse but it’s not mine, I just sponsoring one girl in Slovakia with it.
Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses? This is a famous question on Reddit.
Fight against them? Like to kill them? Otherwise they kill me? A hundred horses, no. But if I have a bazooka then one shot and everything done. Is it big like a horse? This could be hard. Worse than a lion. Oh well. One duck. It’s more easy to kill only one than a hundred. It’s like if you have to resolve one hundred problems. If you have one big problem, you can resolve it.
If you had any superpower in the world, what would you choose?
Electricity – I have it, right? [His entourage laughs] Every superhero has some weakness.Everybody has some weak part, for sure.
How many Bora-hansgrohe riders does it take to get Daniel Oss’s hair in his helmet?
How many stars is in the space?
What’s the fastest you’ve ever been on your bike?
105[km/h], maybe. No, 109 I did in Tour de France. Ah, no… in a race in America, I did 109.
Do you get bike envy?
What’s that? I have the best bikes in the world, so I have no jealousy. For sure, they have envy of my bikes. Specialized are doing very good job, it’s not about me.
Complete these sentences. For you, cycling is…
For you, life is…
Life is nice. If you know how to live it. [laughing]
And what is the answer to the question ‘why so serious?’
That is the key how to live your life. It could be.
This feature was first published in Rouleur 18.7