The real Peter Sagan: beneath the surface, who is the new world champion?
It’s easy to form impressions from the other side of a tv screen – or even a microphone – but it is only those behind the scenes who are able to get, and give, a more complete picture of a personality.
Peter Sagan is a larger than life figure. His image and legend grew even further last Sunday when he won the Elite world road race championships in Richmond, Virginia.
Winning the race with a precisely-timed solo attack and then a superbly skilful descent towards the finish, he instantly made up for all the frustrations, all the agonising near misses this season and before.
Sagan’s immediate reaction was to throw helmet and other kit into the crowd. He then celebrated with team-mates and others and, after that, called for a better society and treatment of others.
“I was finding motivation in the world,” he stated, referring to the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Syria and elsewhere. “I think it is big problem with Europe and all this stuff that is happening. I want to just say this was very big motivation for me.
“The problems in the world we have to change. I think that in the next years it can all be different. I think this competition and all the sport is very nice for the people. And we are motivation for the people.”
In the days since his triumph, CyclingTips has reached out to some of those who know Peter Sagan. They give their thoughts on the man, the rider and that refugee gesture.
The sidekick and talisman – Michael Kolar:
Michael Kolar is a compatriot of Sagan’s and raced alongside him as part of the Slovakian team in the world road race championships in Richmond. He is also a team-mate of his on the Tinkoff-Saxo squad.
Now 22, the sprinter first met Sagan when Kolar was 12 years of age. The two grew up in the same home town and met in the local youth club there.
“The first moment you meet him, he seems quite…let’s say…simple,” says Kolar, speaking from his current base in Canada. “But it is more that he stays simple on the outside, probably so nobody bothers him. Yet when you get to know him, he is quite a different person.
“He jokes a lot. You don’t see any stress on him, that is what I really like.”
Sagan is known for his trick riding on the bike and also his high spirits at the end of races. On several occasions during this year’s Tour de France he was filmed joking with race leader Chris Froome and others, flipping the brim of the Sky leader’s cap and generally playing for laughs.
Kolar knows this side of his personality, of course, but said that appearances can be deceptive.
“Peter always surprises you with something. He is quite unique,” he explained. “Basically, what you see is what you get with him. Sometimes he can surprise you that he actually has something going on his mind and is not so easy-going as you think he would be. But I guess everybody is like that.”
Very soon after Sagan became world champion, he said that he hoped his win might help to unify people, referring in a slightly abstract way to the refugee situation.
Kolar admits he was taken aback by the statement. “Like I said, he tends to surprise people a lot,” he said. “He seems so simple on the outside and then he actually says something like this to get something to think about it, even though he doesn’t always know how to express himself that well.
“Part of that difficulty in expressing himself is due to the language barrier. It’s also a little to do with his personality. But I think he still got the image out there quite well.
“It is amazing that a person of his importance can show up some of these problems. I think that people will now look at these problems with more weight than if a politician said it.”
Sport and politics aside, there is a third element to the new world champion’s character. Kolar said that he has a loyalty to those close to him and is true to his word.
“He is really generous and he would do anything…I remember him saying a couple of years back that he will do anything for his family, that his family is number one. This is even though he doesn’t have the perfect example for a family.
“Ever since then he has stood up to that word, even though he travels a lot. If there is ever any problem, he is the first person to do something about it.”
Sagan and Kolar have known each other over a decade and are clearly close. The younger rider will likely spend a lot of time riding with him in the years ahead due to their shared trade team and national squad. He says, somewhat light-heartedly, that there is another reason why their careers will overlap.
“I was actually with him when he won the world title in juniors in mountainbiking,” he said. “We were laughing about that [in Richmond]. This was my first time doing the elite race with him.
“He said, ‘now I know why I didn’t win all the other years, it is because you weren’t here. You are my lucky charm. Second time, and second world title. So we had a laugh about that.”
The former team-mate – Ted King:
Like Kolar, American rider Ted King has plenty of experience racing alongside Sagan. The two were team-mates on the Liquigas/Cannondale squad between 2011 and 2014, wearing the same jerseys until paths diverged and King went to Cannondale-Garmin, Sagan to Tinkoff-Saxo.
King has now retired and will work on building his sports nutrition maple syrup company, Untapped, in his post-career. He gave his own impressions of Sagan.
“Peter is a blast to hang out with,” he stated. “The same colourful personality you see on the bike comes from within — there’s no dichotomy there, one person on a bike, another off. He is who he is, just a kid having fun on two wheels.”
Asked to give a memory of their time together, he joked that many were not print-worthy, but that one sprung to mind.
“During the Classics, there’s the assumption that you’re racing hard and then reconning the roads for the upcoming races,” he said. “Sure, that happens a bit, but staying in Kortrijk for a month straight gets a touch dry.
“We always look forward to the day after a race, where the recovery ride consists of spinning five kilometres into town and sitting down to a coffee shop. The coffee shops have been known to segue to beer and burger bars and then last year after a few of each, we moseyed on next door so that Peter and I could get hair cuts at a proper old school barber shop… in full kit.
“We were obviously having a good time, and that stems from a cool casual leader like Peter. Or there was the time I brought him to IHOP and introduced him to maple syrup. Ha! True story…”
Asked to sum him up as a person, he said that his character has a calm assurance to it.
“What you see is what you get. Sure, people classify him as brash with his out-of-this-world bike handling skills, but as a leader he’s quietly confident,” he said.
“He never barks orders or is in your face that way; instead it’s understood your job in order to deliver him to his. Thankfully his success rate is way higher than average.
The rival: Simon Gerrans
Like Sagan, he’s a punchy rider with past victories in bunch sprints and a penchant for tough, selective courses. The Australian Simon Gerrans was one of those who went up against Sagan in the world road race championships in Richmond, finishing sixth. He’s also squared up against him multiple times in the past.
Although the two are rivals, the Australian has plenty of respect for the Slovakian.
“I know him a little bit just through racing and I’ve come across him in Monaco a little bit over the past year or so,” he said. “He’s a likeable guy, he’s a great guy and I think he’ll be a fantastic world champion.
“He’s charismatic, he’s really popular with the fans and he is exciting to watch in racing. I think we’ve got a really worthy world champion for the next 12 months.”
The filmmaker: Christophe Keiser
Cycling videographer Christophe Keiser has spent many years working in pro cycling, making videos for Specialized and others. He has worked with Sagan on several occasions and while he doesn’t know him in anything like the same way as Kolar and King, he gives another insight into his personality.
“It’s interesting because he is kind of shy. To me, he is a joker when he is not on the spot, which seems absurd because of the way he celebrated at the end of the world championships,” he told CyclingTips.
“He had this amazing striptease of sorts, throwing his helmet into the crowd and high fiving riders and everything like that. But that is him expressing himself on the bike as opposed to selling himself.
“He is not simple, he is not that surfer dude that people laugh at in the video of the Recon Ride, the one with the voice over ‘it was totally rad….’ [note: Keiser is referring to this humorous online clip of Sagan which has the audio from a legendary surf interview superimposed onto it]
“The guy has got it going on. To be that savvy, to hide out all day and wait for that attack…the guy has got it together. He’s not just a burst of speed, as evidenced by the way he won on Sunday.”
Keiser said that in the lead-up to the race he had a hunch the Slovakian would win, but that others then introduced an element of doubt into his mind.
“I had Sagan for the worlds. People were like, ‘are you joking? He won’t be able to scratch his ass without ten guys covering him.’ ‘I was like, ‘ah you are right…maybe Stybar [instead], because it was predicting rain.’
“But, man, the guy knew that everyone was going to be covering him, so he just hit it out.”
Humility and a humanitarian side:
Keiser gives a greater insight into the seemingly-impromptu statement about the refugees. The anecdote shows that the statement wasn’t anything cynical, but was genuine. It also shows that he had a view of the bigger picture despite a success that completely changed his career.
“I heard a story from Kate, his fiancée, a couple of hours after the jersey presentation… She said that behind the podium, before he went out to get his jersey, he said, ‘Kate, Kate, remember last night I said if I win I am going to talk about the refugees? What do I say? What do I say?’
“Holy sh*t, the kid is what, 25 years old. It is the world championships and at that moment he said, ‘what am I going to say about the refugees?’ Are you sh*tting me?
“People might think this is all calculated but I don’t think it is. I think this is pure Peter. It was completely heartfelt. He had said it to her the night before. He was afraid of misspeaking because he knows his English isn’t great, even if he has improved tremendously in the last two years.
“I think he is just a very honest and true guy. He is sharp and intelligent.”
Keiser speaks of a gesture that suggests an appreciation and humility. Again, this is from the day of his worlds win.
“After we did a quick little video interview, we went in to where his team-mates were. He was wearing his world championship jersey like it was a polo shirt,” he said.
“The beers are being brought in. The woman wants to go serve them. He goes, ‘no, you go, I will take care of this.’ He walks the beers to each one of his team-mates, toasts them and has a drink with them. He just walked back and forth, back and forth serving beers. It was such an honest and sincere thanks. He is like, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’
“It is a small gesture, but it shows it is not all about Peter the Star. That was really impressive.”