The story behind the story: Bunny hopping in the dirt with Peter Sagan

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I’m the first to admit that my job at CyclingTips is something special. Friends and family have a hard time getting their heads around what my job entails. To tell the truth, I do, too, at times.

There have been numerous occasions over the past three years while at CyclingTips that I’ve chuckled to myself about the situation I’ve found myself in for “work.” I do though appreciate this position, and I have a mantra of sorts that I’ll chant to myself on the odd occasion when frustration or doubt starts to creep in. The words “you’re in a privileged position, Dave, don’t forget that” is something that I try to keep in the back of my mind constantly.

The job admittedly comes with many perks — perks that some cycling fans would give their first born for. I’ve found that a “professional but friendly” persona is necessary, as well as the need to be able to step back and analyse at times — it’s important to keep an impartial perspective of the sport.

But on the odd occasion, the fanboy in me is allowed to rear its head. I’ll let the guard drop and enjoy the situation I’m in, wholly. As the adage goes, “never forget where you’ve come from.”

And for one morning in January, I allowed that guard to drop when the offer to get out for a spin and a coffee with the reigning world champion, Peter Sagan, came about.

While the Tour Down Under is on in Adelaide, ground zero is the Hilton Hotel. The hotel is home to riders and staff while the race is in town, making it the epicentre of the cycling world in January. Riders, team staff, journalists, and a bevy of fans create an environment and atmosphere that is like no other race. The pavement outside the lobby automatically becomes the meeting ground for fans to come face to face with their heroes. It’s also used by many as the rollout location for training rides, and this goes for the professionals too. On the mornings the week before the Tour Down Under gets underway, it’s the ideal location to tag along for a ride with guys who’ll be racing Spring Classics and Grand Tours later in the year.

Bora-Hansgrohe had to have other plans. Heading out training with the rock star of the road cycling world demands more managerial skill than most teams. Sagan is a man that could quite easily draw enough fans on a bunch ride that would cause gridlock in downtown Adelaide. Instead, the team snuck out. To get on this ride you needed an invite, and luckily on the Monday after the People’s Choice Classic, a last-minute offer had been thrown my way from Specialized’s team media liaison.

Slipping out via the TDU’s race village’s back gate, we set off for an easy spin, just me, the team, and a follow car. Rolling out of the gates and to the first set of red lights, I found myself at the back of the group, next to Sagan. A quick introduction or two, as my accent is one that most Europeans don’t quite catch the first time around, and we were chatting politely.

For a team leader and a man that must have media hounding him day in and day out, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to escape and ride next to a teammate. Instead, we continued to chat, just the usual on-bike chatter. Even when I eventually requested an on-the-bike interview, he didn’t shift persona. His relaxed, easygoing manner and playfulness was on show at all times.

The ride was a restful one, a cruise around the suburbs of the city. The only priorities, to check out stage four’s finish, unwind the legs from the previous day’s downtown criterium, and the obligatory coffee stop — which resulted in disappointment when the world champ couldn’t get the white mocha he fancied. Instead, over a dark mocha, Sagan and his childhood friend Michael Kolar told me about their lives and newfound fame in Slovakia.

Sticking to your roots

An hour into the ride we pulled over, stopping on a dusty roadside. Riders rolled over to staff, who filled empty bidons. To one side, away from the discussions and bottle filling, the sound of gravel cracked — it was Sagan off on his own. His custom S-Works Venge Vias disc, with its fancy gold Roval wheels, bunnyhopping on the dirt. No cameras were out, no fans around to see the tricks, even his teammates were busy doing their own thing. It was Peter just being Peter. We’ve all seen his antics on YouTube and social media, but this was, shall we say, Sagan “in the wild.”

He wasn’t doing it for anyone but himself, he wasn’t expecting a crowd or a viral video to be taken. He was just off to one side on his own, “pissing about” as my dad would say. It was a pleasure to see, just a guy having fun. I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few team rides, and usually, you’ll see the pros digging their phones out of their pockets on bottle filling stops. To see Sagan instead play a little in the dirt caused a smile and a chuckle.

Do you remember the days when you were a kid, out and about with your mates, just riding, skidding, popping wheelies and generally just messing about, simply because it was what you thought the bike was designed for? It didn’t matter if you were on a BMX, a mountain bike or some hack job, your bike was a tool for freedom and fun. You’d always come back with a smile.

Watching Sagan, the same liberty and childlike foolhardiness we enjoy as kids — riding with your mates, skidding, popping wheelies and generally just messing about — doesn’t look to have left him. Sure, he’s a professional athlete and lives lie with all the expectations that the job comes with — training hard, eating right and dealing with the pressure — but it’s blatantly obvious that the guy just loves being in the saddle. Those wheelies and tricks aren’t just for show, it’s just him. When red lights turn green, he (and several teammates) roll away on the back wheel. When the opportunity arises to skid, it’s grasped, with a handful of rear brake.

That powerful, savvy rider, taking win after win throughout the season is Peter Sagan. That guy you see giving humorous one-liners in press conferences is Peter Sagan. And that guy showing off to the camera is also Peter Sagan. He’s a character that pro cycling — a sport that at times can be a little too serious — desperately needs.

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