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by Dave Everett
January 22, 2017
Photography by Tim Bardsley-Smith
When was the last time you ventured in to a supermarket? It’s not a question that’s usually asked in an interview with a professional.
For some, supermarket shopping is a weekly task. For some there’s no need with the advent of home delivery services. But for Peter Sagan it’s an ordeal, so much so that the World Champ hasn’t been able to walk in to his local grocers for the past five years. It’s just one of the changes that he has had to make since hitting the spotlight on the world cycling stage.
Slovakia’s population currently sits at 5.4 million, and Peter now is one of the most famous Slovakians on the planet. Peter, his team mate Michael Kolar – both in attendance at the Tour Down Under – and Peter’s brother Uri all call Žilina, a town based in the north-west of Slovakia, home. So how has growing up in a town that has a population of 80,000, and then becoming a world-renowned sporting hero, changed him and his life?
We sat down on the day after the People’s Classic criterium, a race where he took third behind Caleb and team mate Sam Bennett. Talking to the Bora-hansgrohe rider at one of Adelaide’s many coffee shops, we found out how his heightened popularity compares to team mate Michael’s. We also discussed what changes in his life he has had to make to cope with the stardom that comes with being a charismatic and hugely talented cyclist.
The single major change for Peter is that he now avoids Slovakia, preferring to base himself in Monaco. Apart from the stable weather and a variety of quality roads to train on, the other major draw is the simple fact that he’s not the most famous person in town. Monaco is known as a hot spot where Hollywood actors and A-list celebrities holiday in expensive hotels, relax on yachts and spend time in luxurious holiday homes. His relative fame here allows a level of anonimity.
Back home, though, it’s a different matter.
When quizzed as to actually how famous he is, where he sits on the Slovakian fame scale amongst national sports stars from the world of football, tennis and ice hockey (a national sport), Sagan gives a frank answer. “In the past few years, I think I’m at the top. In Slovakia I’m famous, although I don’t spend too much time there.”
On the flip side, away from his home nation he is modest. For a man who is arguably the biggest thing to happen to cycling in many years, he doesn’t see himself as all that renowned. “I don’t really feel I’m famous outside (of Slovakia),” he insists.
Sagan orders a white chocolate mocha and, disappointed to find the coffee shop doesn’t serve the drink, settles for a chocolate mocha. He’s at ease and his star status isn’t on show. Relaxed and acting as just ‘one of the lads,’ it’s clear that he seems content in being the Peter Sagan we see in the press and on TV.
In fact, when asked for a photo, selfie or autograph, he is amenable and pleasant, smiling and taking time to be the Sagan people have come to expect. We are interrupted multiple times for snaps and a quick chat; every time he switches on the charm. It’s an insight to his professionalism. But when it comes to the media covering his happenings on and off the bike, he wants there to be a line drawn.
His well-documented wedding in November 2015 to then-fiancée Katarina was example where he feels the press stepped over the line. “If you get an invite to my wedding it’s OK,” he says. “But if I don’t invite you, then why are you there?”
According to Peter this occasion was the sole time he’s had the paparazzi on his back. It was, in his own words, a little bit of a nightmare.
“It’s not like in America, maybe. But that time the paparazzi were at my wedding…I don’t want to share my personal life like this.”
Welcome or not, the lavish wedding with many typical Slovakian traditions certainly caught the media’s attention. Ditto for a video of Peter and his wife Katarina recreating the closing scenes from the movie Grease. That clip was on his terms, and he’s fine with that. “This was for fun, it was for a personal reason,” he explains. “We did it for the wedding, then after made it public on YouTube.” The production was typical Sagan: fun, comical and carefree.
“I started to do mountain biking when I was nine years old. But before I was more interested about actors and movies.”
So is this interest the reason behind the numerous videos that have cropped up on the internet showing his entertaining side? Not really: he claims it’s just because he likes to enjoy himself.
As for his celebrity status, he believes that’s down to his sporting performances rather than his character. “If there are no results, then I’d maybe not be famous in Slovakia. But I still am very happy to do the sport. I do this sport because I like winning, I like to race. I’m not doing this for fame. That [the fame] comes automatically.”
Though clearly level-headed, it appears from the outside that Sagan has two others to thank for keeping him grounded. These are his bother Juraj, who wasn’t in attendance at the Tour Down Under, and his childhood friend and team mate Michael Kolar.
Both have accompanied Sagan throughout his career. Juraj has been on all his teams, namely Liquigas-Cannondale, Tinkoff and now Bora-hansgrohe. As for Michael, he has been racing professionally alongside him since joining Tinkoff back in 2014.
Perhaps because of his glow, Michael and Juraj have also found fame in Slovakia. This is not at the same level as the world champion. “I can still get to the supermarket,” Michael smiles. As for Peter, it emerges that he has not ventured in to a Slovakian supermarket in five years. In doing so, he avoids being swamped in the veg isle by adoring fans.
“Me and Juraj get recognised a bit, which is nice,” says Michael. “But it’s also quite a small town, and a small country. So it’s quite easy to get recognised.”
The two team mates seem happy with their fame level. It seems almost a better deal, just the right amount. In fact, while Sagan no longer resides in his home country to avoid the press, Michael jokes that he uses his fame so he doesn’t have to queue at the tax office. For him, his own status ramped up due to his helping Peter to his first World championship win.
And so now into a new season. If Sagan’s 2016 results were anything to go by, we can expect the months ahead to further increase the superstar’s status on the world stage. It will be interesting to see if his second year in the rainbow jersey is as successful as his first. Also, if the pressure of being world number one is manageable two years on the trot.
I for one sure hope so. A character such as Sagan’s, with his great one liners in press conferences, his zany videos and his showmanship, is something that we need more of in a sport that has increasingly become stage-managed by team managers and press officers.