Analysis: After a superlative 2016 season, evaluating Peter Sagan’s place among cycling’s greats
With a second consecutive world title, and the top spot on the UCI rankings, Peter Sagan reminded the cycling world one last time in 2016 that, at age 26, he is the most dynamic rider of his generation. Just eight years into this professional career, U.S. Editor Neal Rogers examines how Sagan stacks up against cycling’s all-time greats.
After finishing second at E3 Harelbeke to Michal Kwiatkowski, weeks after finishing second to Greg Van Avermaet at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Peter Sagan was asked for comment on yet another second-place finish — something he’d become known for during the 2014-15 seasons. “It is my destiny,” he said, with a smile but also with a sigh.
Sagan then went on to win the next two cobbled classics, Gent-Wevelgem and Ronde van Vlaanderen, steamrolling through a season that produced 14 victories and the top spot in the UCI rankings.
No, Peter Sagan’s destiny is not finishing in second place.
Sagan’s second-place finishes had become a source of frustration, however, especially at the Tour de France, where he took five second-place stage finishes in 2015 without a win. In 2013-14 he finished stages second four times without a win. Prior to winning Stage 2 in July (and taking the yellow jersey), he’d had 13 second-place finishes over three Tours without a victory.
Second place was not Sagan’s destiny in 2016, and there was no rainbow curse. Instead, he was King Midas of the pro peloton, winning when it mattered most. At the Tour, he won three stages and wore yellow, green, and his default, rainbow stripes — Sagan’s Tour suitcase boasted the best wardrobe in pro cycling. In September, he added a European champion’s jersey to his collection, and in October, he renewed his rainbow jersey for another 12 months.
— Peter Sagan (@petosagan) September 18, 2016
So what’s changed for Sagan? In a word, he’s matured. He races smarter. He’s no longer trying to win on sheer force alone. He’s learned to be more patient. He’s learned to let others make the first move. He’s learned to risk losing, and he’s learned to win. With more wins comes more confidence.
Sagan’s combination of skill, natural ability, and confidence is rare. There is no start list that intimidates the Slovakian, and there are few courses where he doubts in his abilities. He’s won 89 races as a professional at the age of 26. He’s earned that confidence.
As Sagan has matured, he’s also become prone to complaints often registered by Fabian Cancellara in years past — “no one wants to work with me and go to the line,” and “if I attack, they all sit on my wheel.” It’s no coincidence; their traits as riders are similar, with Sagan slightly less powerful, but also lighter, and more explosive, especially uphill. It’s a valid complaint — rainbow stripes make up the single biggest target in the peloton — just as it’s a valid tactic to use against a significantly more capable athlete.
Sometimes, however, Sagan’s ability, combined with a lack of a team support, has played into his hands. His two world championship victories have been buoyed, no doubt, by the fact that the big nations — Belgium, Spain, Great Britain — have asserted themselves and watched one another, allowing Sagan to freelance, somewhat anonymously, in the blue and white Slovakian kit.
In pro cycling, for the best of riders, wins are often followed by more wins. Even in the heat of battle — especially in the heat of battle — racers can smell desperation. In 2016, Peter Sagan was not desperate.
“It’s very hard to work with the other guys, no one wants to work with me,” Sagan said after soloing to victory at the Tour of Flanders in April. “It’s always better to drop everybody. But it’s not easy.”
How Sagan stacks up
To date, Sagan’s biggest accomplishments in eight years as a professional have been two world championships, a Flanders victory, seven Tour de France stage wins, and five (consecutive) green jerseys. He’s also won Gent-Wevelgem twice, taken four stages at the Vuelta a España, five stages at Tirreno-Adriatico, 13 stages at Tour de Suisse, 15 stages at the Amgen Tour of California, and WorldTour wins at one-day races in Quebec, Montreal, and E3 Harelbeke.
All of Sagan’s success has led to a string of superlatives. He’s been hailed as “his generation’s Eddy Merckx,” and “the best cyclist in the world.” And while there will never be another Eddy Merckx — it’s both fruitless and unfair to compare any rider to Merckx, or Bernard Hinault — Sagan is the most dynamic, versatile rider of his generation.
Midway through his career, it’s worth examining Sagan’s record, and where that stands among cycling’s greats — not compared to Merckx, Hinault, or other Grand Tour champions, but compared to similar riders who have also captured world championships, green jerseys, and Monuments in their careers. (Riders in today’s pro peloton who have also won all three are Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen. Cancellara won seven Monuments and seven Tour stages, and though the Swiss rider never won a world road championship, he took four world TT titles and two Olympic TT gold medals.)
Among these types of riders, Belgian Rik Van Looy, whose career spanned from 1953-1970, is in a class of his own, having won two world championships, eight Monuments (including all five at least once), 37 Grand Tour stages, and one green jersey.
And while every rider possesses a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, in Sagan we see shades of two more recent professionals, Sean Kelly and Erik Zabel, a pair of riders whose lasting images from the Tour de France nearly always involve them wearing the green jersey. Neither man, however, ever won a world championship, something Sagan has accomplished twice at age 26.
A legend of the sport, Kelly won nine Monuments, four green jerseys at the Tour, and 193 pro races in total. He won Paris-Nice seven years in a row, and was the first UCI World Cup winner, in 1989. He won the 1988 Vuelta a España and finished fourth at the 1985 Tour de France, one of four top-10 finishes at the Tour. He also took multiple wins at Lombardia, Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and GC victories at the Tour de Suisse, Tour of the Basque Country, and Volta a Catalunya.
Though he finished second at Flanders on three occasions, and third at Worlds twice, Kelly never won either race — a sore subject, to be sure, and coincidentally both races Sagan has won. What must also be remembered: Kelly tested positive twice during his career, in 1984 and 1988, though neither came with a meaningful suspension.
Over a 16-year career, Zabel won Milan-San Remo four times, took six consecutive green jerseys (and 12 Tour de France stage wins), and won Amstel Gold, Paris-Tours on three occasions, and the UCI World Cup series title, in 2000. He never won Worlds, a frustrating hole in his resume, taking silver medals in Verona (behind Oscar Freire) and Salzburg (behind Paolo Bettini), and a bronze in Zolder, behind Mario Cipollini and Robbie McEwen.
In 2013, Zabel admitted to doping from 1996 to 2004; as it is with so many riders from that era, the degree to which his legacy shall remain impactful, or tainted, is entirely subjective.
Another rider of the modern era with a similar skillset to Sagan was Spaniard Oscar Freire, who won three world championships, Milan-San Remo on three occasions, four Tour de France stages (and one green jersey), seven stages at the Vuelta a España, 11 stages at Tirreno-Adriatico, and a pair of semi-classics, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours.
Freire, whose career spanned 15 seasons, was one of the sport’s greats, but, perhaps outside of Spain, his status among the legends of cycling is questionable. That’s not a knock on Freire, just a realistic assessment of his palmares — he was often sidelined with injury, and he won big more than he won often, with just 71 wins.
It should not be overlooked that Sagan won the 2016 UCI individual WorldTour ranking, a truly incredible achievement. It’s perhaps shortsighted that being the most consistent rider throughout the season doesn’t carry the prestige of a rainbow jersey or a Monument — both one-day races where all factors must align perfectly.
Taking the WorldTour victory is somewhat akin to winning the UCI World Cup series that ran from 1989 to 2004 — a title made up of one-day results won by riders like Kelly, Museeuw, Zabel, and Bettini. With all three Grand Tours added to the mix, today’s version should be seen as even more prestigious, rewarding the most consistent, well-rounded rider of the season.
Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez are recent individual WorldTour winners. That Sagan, a classics specialist and sprinter, won both the series title and two consecutive world championships, speaks volumes to his consistency and versatility.
What’s left for Sagan?
After winning the 2008 junior World Cross-Country Championship, and finishing second in the junior World Cyclocross Championships and junior Paris-Roubaix, Sagan made his peloton debut in 2009, with the Slovakian Continental team Dukla Trencin-Merida. A failed tryout with Quick-Step almost prompted Sagan to leave the sport; instead he signed a two-year deal with Liquigas. It didn’t take him long to start winning; at the 2010 Paris-Nice, at the age of 19, he took his first (and second) WorldTour victories.
In 2013, Liquigas teammate Ivan Basso told Bicycling.com that Sagan’s potential had no limits. “I have never seen a rider like him,” Basso said. “I don’t think anyone has. He is a first-of-a-kind rider. You can expect everything because he can win what he wants — anything. If he wins the Tour de France someday, it will not be a surprise to me.”
And while it’s unlikely Sagan will ever contend for GC at a Grand Tour, or win one as Kelly did at the 1988 Vuelta, Basso is mainly correct — Sagan can win almost anything.
In terms of the Spring Classics, a Milan-San Remo win seems inevitable for Sagan. He’s finished second, stunned by Gerald Ciolek in 2013, and has been in the top 10 on four occasions in seven attempts. However, as Tom Boonen has said, Milan-San Remo is the easiest Monument to finish, and the hardest to win. Boonen shares the record for victories at both Flanders and Roubaix, but has never taken the flowers on Via Roma, finishing second, third, and fourth.
With Cancellara retired, Sagan will be the favorite at Tour of Flanders for years to come. But De Ronde is the race many top riders desire to win, particularly Belgians, and he’ll face rivals young and old, whether it’s an up-and-comer like Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), a former champion like Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), or perhaps someone unexpected, such as young cyclocross stars Mathieu van der Poel or Wout Van Aert. Still, it’s likely Sagan will win Flanders again; it’s a course that suits him perfectly, and he has many more opportunities.
Paris-Roubaix is harder to predict. It’s more of a lottery than Flanders, and in 2017 Sagan will again have the Etixx-QuickStep squad of Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Zdenek Stybar to contend with. Sagan’s best result at Roubaix is sixth, in 2014. He’s a contender, as he is in most every race, but he’s yet to show he can tame the Queen of the Classics. Just as Kelly never won Flanders, it’s possible Sagan could face his biggest challenge at Roubaix. Or, he could win it next year — it’s that kind of race, and he’s that kind of rider.
At the Tour de France, it’s not hyperbole to say that the green jersey appears Sagan’s for life — or at least for another 10 years. Barring injury, or a change in the Tour’s points system that would heavily favor field sprinters, it’s possible Sagan could become the first rider in history to win the green jersey at every Tour he’s started. He’s already won five green jerseys in as many years, and he could easily double that number.
There’s no reason to think Sagan can’t win the Amstel Gold Race, as Zabel did, particularly with its revised, flat finish. Uphill puncheur Michael Matthews, a rider with similar qualities to Sagan, has twice been in the top five at Amstel, but for the Slovakian it’s more a matter of the race’s place on the calendar, one week after Roubaix. If he takes the start line in Maastricht, he will be an instant favorite.
As for Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, they are likely too hilly, and even for a rider as strong as Sagan, his form would be too far gone in late April to contend unless he made these races his objective and skipped the cobbled classics — an unlikely scenario, unless he first wins San Remo and Roubaix.
Winning all five Monuments is nearly impossible in today’s modern cycling. Kelly came close, winning San Remo, Roubaix, Liège, and Lombardia — and nine in total — but could not seal the deal at De Ronde. Cancellara won San Remo, Flanders, and Roubaix, but did not try for Liège or Lombardia. Sagan has started Lombardia twice, and abandoned twice; to win it would require wholesale changes to his physiology and race schedule, and is extremely unlikely. The era of riders capable of winning all five Monuments likely ended with Roger De Vlaeminck in 1979.
Sagan has never raced the Giro d’Italia, instead choosing the Amgen Tour of California every season he’s been a professional. He’s won 15 stages in California, as well as the overall. And while it’s a race that’s been good for him, for his American bike sponsor, and for American fans, there is little left for him to prove in the Golden State. For a rider of his caliber, a Giro stage win — bringing him stage wins at all three Grand Tours — will, at some point, become a priority.
Sadly, one thing that is also likely is injury, something Sagan hasn’t truly faced in his still-young career. As a field sprinter and classics specialist, it’s only a matter of time before a broken collarbone, or worse, derails his trajectory. Then again, maybe not. He’s renowned for his handling skills, and so far, only a race motorcycle, at the 2015 Vuelta a España, has been able to harm him, knocking him from his bike and forcing him to abandon the race — but not before he (rightfully) got in a few kicks of his own. Three weeks later, he came back to win the rainbow jersey in Richmond.
And what about on the mountain bike? A junior world champion, Sagan has made no secret for his love of racing on knobby tires, opting out of the hilly Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro for a shot an Olympic cross-country medal instead. That decision proved to be the wrong one, evidenced by Greg Van Avermaet’s gold medal — the Belgian, more than perhaps any current rider, shares many of Sagan’s on-bike characteristics — but for one early lap at Deodoro Olympic Park, it appeared Sagan might actually pull off the unthinkable. He was never going to beat Nino Schurter, and a lack of finesse was his ultimate undoing, but it’s not unthinkable that Sagan could medal at a world championship, or even in Tokyo in 2020.
What’s most likely are victories at San Remo, Roubaix, and Amstel Gold, as are more wins at Flanders, stages and green jerseys at the Tour de France, and perhaps another world championship title — or two. Sagan could well end his career with five world championship titles, an equal number of Monuments, 10 green jerseys, and 20 Tour de France stage wins.
As for stage races, he’s already won the Tour of Poland and the Amgen Tour of California; stage-race victories at Eneco Tour, Qatar, Oman, and Dubai are all realistic. If things line up, he could perhaps even contend at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he finished second overall to Van Avermaet this year (due to a cancelled mountain stage), or even the Tour de Suisse, where Cancellara won in 2009 when organizers delivered a route devoid of mountaintop finishes.
What’s perhaps most daunting for the rest of the peloton is that Sagan will turn 27 in January. He’s not yet reached his physical peak, which he’ll hit with years of valuable racing experience — winning experience — under his belt. Where will this leave him, among the pantheon of greats? It’s impossible to say definitively, but it is sure to be fun finding out.
In the meantime, enjoy the Sagan era. He’s the most dynamic rider of his generation. It’s always better to drop everybody, but it’s not easy.