THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
It’s stage 16 of the 2015 Tour de France in Gap. Peter Sagan bangs his chest with his fist as he rides over the finish line for probably the most memorable second place in cycling history. He has just chased a rival all-out up a steep hill then torn down it like a MotoGP racer who’s realised he’d left the front door open. For a dozen breathless minutes, his bike seemed like an extension of his body, such was the speed and control on display. It was an edge-of-the-seat watch.
He was probably out there thinking the other green jersey contenders have rookie numbers. Because, borrowed from Matthew McConnaughey’s character in the Wolf of Wall Street film, the message was clear: I’ve got heart.
That’s innate, just like your character. You’re born with it, it ebbs and flows through time, experiences and influences. Sagan’s own was forged as a kid in Slovakia climbing trees, hiking through the forests, swimming in the lakes, skiing and chucking snowballs in the winter. Daring, exploring, entertaining. In cycling, he discovered his calling and passion. As a teenager, Sagan swapped his mountain bike for a skinnier road version and blazed his own trail.
In an ever more specialised sport, “Peter the Great” toppled his rivals over and over again. Bunch sprints were gobbled up as easily as Christmas chocolates. He won three consecutive rainbow jerseys on the road. Triumph at the 2016 Tour of Flanders was topped off by his wheelie over the line and he added its cobbled counterpart, Paris-Roubaix, two years later, with a 50-kilometre breakaway.
Then there are the record seven green jerseys and 12 stage wins at the Tour de France. Class personified. Take it from the great directeur sportif Brian Holm: “He was so good, sometimes he just played with us. We never saw that before. He was the first big superstar.”
But forget the wow moments and wins (yes, all 121 of them on the road) for a second.
Riding around on his back wheel like a kid showing off in front of his mates in the park, carving downhill with surgical precision, giving witty interviews answers in his charming accent, doing a running Forrest Gump as a victory celebration. Peter Sagan is different. It’s his way of being which fosters the deepest connection to the wider world, not the world remarkable results. He smiles and thumps his chest, we smile and our heart beats back. He skids round a gravelly corner and our mouths drop.
He’s a non-conformist in a sport where, ever more, you’re meant to follow the leader, do the marginal gains that work for everyone else, eat your body weight in pasta. That begins in his head. He has the courage of his own conviction to know what worked for him. Systems and power numbers are more for coaches to stress about. He’ll do five hours and decide how hard to go on the long climb, depending on his feelings that day. It’s not a matter of pressing a computer button and robotically doing a session. One of his teammates said he’d never seen Sagan perform an interval and that if he’d followed the Slovak sensation’s training, he’d have gotten nowhere.
Then there’s his zen attitude. His road captain at Bora-hansgrohe, Marcus Burghardt, opened the door the evening before one Milan-Sanremo where Sagan was, as usual, the red-hot favourite… to see him playing the football console game FIFA. Talking about the next day’s tactics or poring over the road book like the others: not for him. Why so serious? As Sagan himself once said: “I feel the rainbow jersey, but it’s not pressure. It's a responsibility to entertain.”
The better he got, the more outgoing he became, a cycling Sinatra doing it his way. Growing his hair long and turning up without shaven legs to the first bike race of the year. Signing an autograph for a fan while racing up the Col du Tourmalet, one of cycling’s most iconic mountains (he never turns down a request, but this was taking it to an extreme). Talking about the global refugee crisis after winning his first elite road rainbow jersey.. Welcome to the Peter Sagan show, predict the unpredictable. He won one Tour de France stage after clipping out of his pedal while going 70km/h. A Tour of Oman stage was earned by bunny-hopping over a road divider so he could attack out of reach of the great Vincenzo Nibali. Always keep ‘em guessing the next move, eh?
When he’s finished racing on two wheels, you’d figure he could just as easily ride off into the horizon and become a surfer dude catching breakers. Or a DJ – maybe Pete Tong can show him the ropes in Ibiza. For now, thankfully for us, the bike is where he belongs. Sagan has unfinished business, going full circle back to mountain biking for a pop at cross-country gold at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Whatever happens, it will be a joy to behold from cycling’s biggest showman – the very embodiment of Joyriding.
Written by Andy McGrath