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Words by Maria Nasif | Photos by Maria Nasif, Kristof Ramon & Cor Vos
It’s morning in San Diego, and a pair of striking Slovakians are making their way through a crowd of adoring fans.
Together, Peter and Katarina Sagan form a delicious combination of brawn and beauty as they prepare for a group ride with some 20 cyclists from a local bicycle club.
Resplendent in his rainbow jersey, the world champion autographs the backs of jerseys, the tops of helmets — even a top tube gets the treatment. He smiles for shared selfies, group selfies, and for a moment becomes the third stooge, as two boisterous gentlemen straddle his shoulders, unleashing their unbridled joyful banter.
Katarina seems right at home with the cheerful commotion, engaging with soigneurs and onlookers alike as she moves seamlessly through multiple idioms.
Peter and Katka (short for Katarina in Slovak) met three years ago, in his hometown of Žilina, and quickly established a kinetic rapport, capitalising on each other’s assets.
He is spokesperson and comic interest for Sunroot products, a company devoted to promoting the health benefits of Topinambur – more commonly known as the sunchoke – a species of sunflower native to eastern North America. She is chief marketing director of the business. Sunroot supplies Sagan’s Tinkoff squad with everything from organic jams to cereals.
“Katka had her own business before I showed up,” Peter says. “She ran a family business with bioproducts, so she usually is occupied with the business. And on top of that, if I’m overwhelmed, she also helps me.”
They were married on November 11, 2015, and often travel together to races. Newlyweds working together during the hectic pace of racing? Well, there goes the honeymoon, one might assume. But the reality thus far for this merry duo has been a charmed, relaxed vibe, punctuated by their ability to both fit in and stand out — endearing them equally to male and female cycling enthusiasts.
What may be under the radar for many cycling fans are the couple’s efforts to help children in their native Slovakia.
“We support two beautiful youth projects in Slovakia: — the Peter Sagan Kids Tour and Peter Sagan Academy,” Katarina explains. “The aim of both is to support young rising stars to develop their talents in cycling.”
In addition, Peter’s hands are helping to create a neonatology clinic for premature babies in Bratislava.
“Peter and designer Gordana Turuk created his fingerprints in a series of glass works that will go on public display, and the collection will also become part of an auction,” says Katarina. “It was his idea that will now provide funds for a much-needed intensive care and surgery unit.”
Together since early 2013, Peter and Katarina married two months after his world championship title, and have shared anything but the average ups and downs that most young couples would encounter — all in the spotlight of millions of cycling fans.
Peter claims that marriage did not have an impact on his lifestyle. “I think maybe a child could change my habits, but being married did not really change my life that much,” he says.
When asked what his greatest challenge is, he answers quickly.
“The biggest obstacle for an athlete is to live an ordinary life,” he says. “It’s overwhelming, and it’s very difficult to focus on my job. So it’s very helpful for me to hide away somewhere in a cabin, where I stay for a month. I train. I cook for myself. Or when Katka is there, then she takes care of me [smiling].
“It’s also about a mental focus and preparation, and not just training. Because regeneration is as important as training. When I have to take care of other commitments there is no time for recuperation. And if this comes day after day, then it accumulates, and the body cannot recuperate.”
Time spent handling endless queries for interviews cannot be overstated. Although his uber-athleticism, boyish antics, and colorful nonconformity all telegraph irresistibility, the signature Saganesque response is equally to blame for his popularity.
Take this question and answer, prior to Paris-Roubaix, in April:
Reporter: “You won the first big classic of the season, and of your career, with Flanders. What did it change — maybe less pressure for tomorrow, maybe more experience? What did it change for you to win last week?”
Sagan: “Nothing. Just more interviews.”
Even his cumbersome verbal flourish at the end of the world championships, covering a sweep of critical topics – including the European refugee crisis – that left many viewers bewildered, had an unforeseen outcome: extreme Sagan fans now impersonate his run-on sentence style as a point of pride, much the same way Jens Voigt’s followers chant his all-too-familiar quotes.
At the Amgen Tour of California, Sagan has become the cynosure of fans and photographers alike, carelessly eschewing the gaze of other riders in pursuit of the King of California, the nickname he earned after taking the overall win in 2015.
As reigning ambassador to the proprietary blend of sprinting, one-day classics, and an incredible resiliency on the climbs, Sagan impressed everyone, including himself, by taking sixth place at the summit of Mt. Baldy — a feat which required pacing, perseverance, and a mind tuned to the power of possibility.
During that same year’s final stage in Pasadena, seismic activity swelled and spiked by the crowd’s percussive slaps against the barricades. It seemed the very ground was trembling. An older gentleman whispered over and over again, ‘mas fuerte, mas rapido’ — faster, stronger — like some mantra that could will his rider forward and into the lead.
In the final moments of the race, the rest of the world fell away and the sprint to the finish line was all that remained. While most cheered with the enthusiasm of a high-school spirit squad on speed, one woman looked sick with anxiety, watching her beloved rider fail at the finish, and a teenager with a cap that read ‘404 error’ simply walked away with a shrug.
Peter Sagan takes third in the final stage of the 2015 Tour of California, winning the race overall.
Stage 1 of this year’s Amgen Tour of California provided an equally exciting finish in San Diego, with Sagan migrating behind the other sprint leaders in the final kilometre, gaining momentum as he moved through an ever-decreasing diameter of space – a virtual Venturi effect – before exploding in front of Cannondale sprinter Wouter Wippert to narrowly take the stage win.
The crowd went wild— the defending champion, the world champion, the Flanders champion, had returned to win the opening stage, and once again, wear the golden leader’s jersey.
Sagan did not expect to repeat a GC win by tour’s end.
“Every year (at ATOC) is different, and I think maybe last year I had a lucky year,” he says. “I tried to do my best on the (Mt. Baldy) climb and I did. This year there are more climbs, so it’s better to try and just win some stages.” Alluding to the unpredictability of racing he adds: “Last year if you told me that I would win, I would tell you that you are crazy.”
Ponder for a moment an equally crazy scenario: You come home from work after a hellish day, your throat is parched, and you need to relieve yourself. You swing open the door to find a bunch of strangers swarming all over you, begging for your attention.
Few riders demonstrate Sagan’s level of patience, crossing the finish line (as winner or loser) without a chance to take a sip of water from the soigneur, surrounded by media and fans like a bead on an abacus, signing as many autographs as possible.
“I would have to describe him first and foremost as very kindhearted,” Katarina says. “Although he can be protective of his privacy, he wants to be helpful to others whenever he has the chance. I think he was born to be a generous, fun-loving person.”
For many of us, athletes have become modern-day gurus, guiding our inspirations and disappointments. We study their strengths, their styles, their quirks. We adopt everything from their training regimens and nutritional advice to the gear they use and the products they endorse. We think about why they win, how they handle loss, and become invested in the outcomes.
Sagan plays into that collective id by making the race feel personal to millions of people who have played no part. His invitation? To celebrate the carefree times of our youth, when a physical accomplishment could cheer you for weeks. Look! I won it! Look again! A wheelie!
Fortunately for the Sagans — and for us — the party has only just begun.