Rewind: Peter Sagan — Nothing To Prove

Ed. Note: With Peter Sagan off to a commanding start in his 2013 season we thought it might be smart to revisit the profile of Sagan that ran in the Fall 2012 issue of Paved.

By Kevin Rouse
Portrait: Anthony Smith | Photos: Kevin Rouse

Though he’s just 22 years of age, many are singing the praises of Peter Sagan to the tune that he may just be the best we’ve ever seen. The second coming of the great Eddy Merckx? It’s been prophesied. A future Grand Tour star? Perhaps. If nothing else, his palmarès in his first three seasons as a professional certainly point a long finger at a particularly bright future. Still, such predictions don’t fall lightly on a budding professional cyclist.

Right now though, those weighty forecasts are far from his thoughts as Sagan puts on quite a show off of the bike. The man attacks a hamburger like the final two hundred meters of a race. Not to be beaten, he leaves the rest of us looking silly as we hold nearly untouched burgers in our hands. A heady glass of Chimay is the next to fall to Sagan’s hellacious pace.

Though he may barely be of age, Sagan definitely knows how to comport himself where food and drink are concerned—but a quick look at his results this season would suggest that he knows how to do just the same in the peloton.

Looking around at the rest of the table, he admits sheepishly, “That’s the best burger I’ve ever had.”

Fresh off a wildly successful campaign at the Amgen Tour of California—where he won an unprecedented five stages leaving world-class sprinters in his wake—Sagan is on a glad-handing victory lap of Southern California, the novelty of the States having yet to wear off for the Slovakia native.

His one beef with America? “There are too many choices,” he says. “You go into a grocery store and there are 10 types of the same thing.”

Sagan knows a thing or two about how to run a grocery store too—his family owned one in his hometown of Zilina, where he grew up the youngest of four children.

Sagan improves on his Forest Gump impression at the Cannondale Pro Cycling team presentation.

At the Paved office for a scheduled interview, Sagan is the epitome of politeness, answering questions with a dutiful demeanor. When we wrap up, instead of going straight to lunch, he asks if someone can show him around on a short ride to keep the cobwebs at bay.

Plenty humble, he’s not afraid to admit that, despite how effortless his exploits appeared on TV, they had come back to haunt his legs with a particularly zealous passion today, so if we could avoid any hills, that’d be appreciated.

It’s on the ride, I realize, that the true interview begins. Away from his handlers and translators, fissures begin to appear in his manufactured reservedness. A bit of stilted small talk—he’s still working on his English—between the two of us as we roll down toward the coast for an easy spin belies a much more impetuous nature.

He’s noticeably more comfortable and in his element—no cameras, no notebooks, no pretenses—just two pairs of legs turning over the pedals, albeit one pair being vastly more capable than the other.

Sagan dials up the pace to (s)mile-a-minute.

Spinning down the coast, talk of the local Californian ‘talent’ and fast cars subsides and Sagan reveals he never counted on being a professional cyclist. He started riding at the age of nine, and quickly began enjoying success in local races. Even after picking up several amateur contracts, racing was still just a hobby.

“I never thought I’d race my bike professionally,” Sagan confesses. Still, he maintains that he had entertained visions of himself at the sport’s highest level growing up.

Now, three years into his professional career, he relates that the romanticized images of professional cycling he harbored as an amateur were a bit off base. No longer a hobby, it’s instead become a job, but “a good one” at that.

As Sagan admits that his excitement for the sport has been dulled by the realities brought on by the bottom line of salaries and sponsorships, there’s still an unmistakable spark in the young rider’s eyes when he talks of his plans for the upcoming Tour de France. It’s a look of youthful exuberance that illustrates his relatively short relationship with adulthood.

Sagan pops a wheelie at the Cannondale Pro Cycling Training Camp in Thousand Oaks, California

It will be his first Tour, but his ambitions are high as he explains his desire to take the green jersey into Paris. It’s a lofty claim for anyone to make, let alone for a rider making his Tour debut, but it’s the matter-of-factness in his tone that convinces one to believe that there is indeed a legitimate chance of him actually pulling it off.

His case becomes even more persuading, however, when he lets slip the details of a bet he made with Liquigas-Cannondale team boss Paolo Zani. Take two stages and the green jersey, and Zani would pony up a Porsche.

Armed with the knowledge of Sagan’s love of fast cars and the discerning look he gave to every Porsche that passed us by, there now was little doubt in my mind that he’d arrive in Paris wearing green.

Fast forward just a few quick months and thousands of racing miles, and Sagan would indeed eventually end up riding into Paris having held the maillot vert since the second stage, becoming the youngest rider behind Willy Planckaert to take the title of Tour’s fastest man as well as the youngest rider to win a stage since Lance Armstrong won one at the age of 21 in 1993.

There was no lack of style in his three commanding stage victories, either. Garnering headlines and column-inches aplenty for his finish-line salutes, claims of arrogance and disrespect came just as fast as a massive fan following.

But to call Sagan disrespectful is to misunderstand him entirely. A devout disciple of the sport’s history and a genuine competitor, his respect for the sport runs deep.

Instead, his celebrations are merely a reminder that, at 22, he’s still trying not to lose sight of why he started cycling in the first place. Thrust Sagan in the spotlight and he’s proved he’ll manage to outshine it, but beyond it, he’s still just a kid who genuinely enjoys riding his bike.

Sagan’s success in the Tour de France has only served to reinforce his potential. In three short years, he has strung together a record that’s the source of envy for riders many years his senior. It’s a record that begs the question: What’s next for Peter Sagan?

Increasingly, critics and commentators are answering that question in the form of comparisons to the sport’s greats. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a third-year professional, even if he’s a wünderkind with an impressive string of accomplishments.
But that’s not to say they are entirely without merit. I recall asking Sagan toward the end of our ride whom he most likened himself to in the pantheon of the professional peloton and was put in my place with his response.

“I am most like Peter Sagan,” he said flatly.

It’s painfully true. There isn’t a pressing need to label Sagan before his time—and at his age, there’s plenty of that. Rather, all we can do is just sit back and enjoy the show he puts on every time he throws a leg over a bicycle.

Instead of leveraging comparisons and heightening expectations, we’d be better served to simply take satisfaction in his signature one-handed wheelies and his sheepish grins as he stands on the top step of what may—or may not be—countless podiums to come. As with all things, time will tell, but for now, just don’t call him anything other than Peter Sagan.

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