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The eyes of the cycling world are on him, but Peter Sagan is showing no signs of pressure. Winner of Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, he heads into Paris-Roubaix on Sunday as arguably the biggest favourite. However if the world road race champion is feeling the weight of expectation, he certainly wasn’t showing it on Friday.
Sagan met a group of journalists for a ten minute chat by the team bus prior to riding some of Roubaix’s cobblestone sectors. The location was the Lidl car park in Denain, hardly the most glamorous of places. Sagan didn’t mind. In fact, he was in an extremely laid back mood, responding to sometimes-peculiar questions with sometimes-short, often quirky answers.
Here are some examples.
Q: What are your expectations for Paris-Roubaix on Sunday?
Peter Sagan: What are the expectations…eh…go to the finish, not crash and have a nice day.
Q: People are calling you the big star in cycling. Do you agree with them?
PS: I am just doing my job and the best that I can do.
Q: Do you like this attention? There are a lot of people always following you…is that cool?
PS: Is it cool? I get used [to it]….
Q: Do you feel more relaxed now after Flanders? Do you feel less pressure, or how do you feel?
PS: After I won the world championship, I relaxed. Now, I am always relaxed.
Q: Is it motivation for you to be able to win Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders and perhaps Paris-Roubaix? Is that a dream for you?
PS: A dream…motivation…? I feel good, I stay good…and for sure I am not sad.
Q: Do you think if it is raining on Sunday, is that an advantage for you or do you want it dry?
PS: Will it be raining or not?
Q: Maybe. What do you prefer?
PS: How will be will be. It is not in my hands. I am happy if I don’t crash, if I come to the finish. Then I will be happy.
To fully appreciate his answers, listen to the audio below. As can be heard, he’s enjoying himself; giving short, almost cheeky responses to questions, but with a wry smile or a laugh.
Another rider in his position might buckle under the pressure, but he doesn’t see things that way. He tries to have fun with his sport and he’s not planning on stopping that anytime soon.
Ditto with his press encounters: he’s flippant at times, but also seems to get a slight kick out of the back and forth. Watching him Friday was like being witness to a sparring match.
Q: Peter, some people say you are cycling’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A big star.
PS: Who is Ibrahimovic? [said with a laugh].
Q: You talked about the world championship title giving you more confidence. But with the championship and Flanders now, you can be unbeatable for the other riders?
PS: It is not my problem [laughs].
Q: Are they not afraid of you?
Q: The other riders?
PS: I don’t know. You have got to ask them [laughs].
However, to dismiss Sagan as a rider who doesn’t ever think deeply about things would be wide off the mark. Sure, on the surface he can at times seem like a big kid. After his Flanders win he was pictured driving a remote control car up and down the street, delighting in the pure fun of it. Then there was that ill-advised pinch of a podium girl three years ago at the Tour of Flanders, something he later apologised for.
Yet there is another side to him too. When he won the world championships his first comments were about the refugee crisis in Europe, a topic that many others in his position would have steered clear of. And then there are his comments on Friday about why he didn’t shave his legs.
“At the start of the season, it was hard…I never had time,” he said, asked about the topic, before giving a different reason. “And who came with this style to shave the legs in cycling? I don’t know. Nobody knows, and everybody is shaving their legs.
“But why? Nobody answers, they don’t know the answer.”
As world champion, bucking that trend was a statement. It was a challenge to the way of doing things, a flash of non-conformity in a very traditional sport. Wearing a black rainbow jersey in training is another example.
He’s since taken a razor to the foliage, but refusing to do so for the first few weeks of 2016 was a way of saying that he won’t just follow others. If he wants to go his own path, he will do so.
Roubaix: a different style of race
Right now, though, the path he has chosen is to try to win Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. He seemed relaxed on Friday, yet it’s certain that he will have his race mindset in place when the peloton rolls out of Compiègne.
Sagan said the first time he watched the race on television was when Tom Boonen won. He didn’t specify the year, but it was most likely Boonen’s first victory, back in 2005.
Why? Well, the Belgian took his second win in the event in 2008 but that was the same year that Sagan finished second in the junior race. He’d likely have been well aware of the pro contest by that time.
Whatever the year, he said that the event stood out to him as unique.
“Everybody likes Roubaix because it is a different style of race. Cobblestones…it is unique in the world. There is a big story behind it. And Flanders, Roubaix means that the stronger riders can be in the front.”
Finishing in a velodrome is also something which marks it out as different.
If things to go plan, he’ll race into the Roubaix track alone and be able to savour a rare double as Flanders-Roubaix champion. Doing so in the world championship jersey would be even more special; the last to win Flanders and Roubaix while wearing the rainbow bands was Rick Van Loy, all of 54 years ago.
However he knows that there are no guarantees, even if he was the best last weekend.
“Paris-Roubaix is a different race. It has not a lot of steep climbs like in Flanders,” he explained. “It is more cobblestones. I think that the cobblestones are much worse than in Flanders. It is a different type of race.”
But which one suits him better?
“I don’t know. I won Flanders, and we will see how is going Roubaix,” he said. “But I like both – Flanders and also Roubaix, they are very specific races, very nice.”
Each year, the days leading up to Roubaix provoke guessing games. Speculation about who will win becomes more and more intense as the start grows closer. Who will win out? Will it be Sagan, Cancellara, Boonen, or someone else?
If Sagan has a key rival in mind, he isn’t making that public. Asked, for example, if Boonen can still win after his bad crash last autumn, he said was possible.
Yet he also emphasised that the race wasn’t about two or three riders.
“Of Boonen, Cancellara, and these big names…they are always there. And also a lot of other riders can be there.”
Asked at another point to name his main rivals, he didn’t bite.
“Everybody. Like always”
As for his own chances, he’s not in the mood for predictions. The following questions and answers illustrate that.
Q: What kind of race do you expect on Sunday?
PS: It doesn’t matter now. We will see in the race. I don’t expect nothing [laughs].
Q: You were sixth two years ago. That was your best result. But you said then two years ago that you knew you would be able to win the race. You knew it two years ago…
PS: Maybe. We will see from the luck how will be the race. If my destiny is the win, maybe I can. If my destiny is not to win, I don’t win.
Q: And is it a matter of destiny?
PS: Oh yeah.
Sagan’s answers were curt at times, other times flippant. Yet despite a press scrum forming a tight hemisphere around him at the team bus, he continued to adeptly deal with the questions served at him.
Calm and relaxed, he continued answering until the team’s media chief began to wind things down. There was time for another cheeky exchange and then the interview was done.
Q: You stay here, you don’t say, ‘please, last question.’ It is the press officer who needs to say to you to leave to go training. Do you like that? Do you like talking to journalists, to fans?
PS: Uhhh… I don’t know? You like to make me questions?
PS: And it is your job, no?
Q: But your job is riding?
SP: Yeah, but also when you are winning, it is your job also to answer the questions. And then I am here…
Click on the audio above to hear the full exchange as it played out.