An enigma wrapped in rainbow stripes: Understanding Peter Sagan

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I am sure as hell not going to pretend that I understand Peter Sagan. He’s a massively talented enigma to me, and I know that many journalists who cover pro cycling feel the same way.

The last time I lobbed a question Sagan’s way was 18 months ago in a modest hotel conference room in Westlake Village, California. It was right before a gala dinner for a charity gran fondo event, and some of the journalists crowded around the table had been promised one-on-one sessions that never materialized. Sagan was running late — or not really in the mood. So we all just had to take turns launching questions.

I know that Peter hates stupid questions, so I tried to formulate a not-stupid question. “Do you ever lie in bed replaying the final seconds from Milan-San Remo or other races that didn’t quite work out?” I asked.

He looked at me, blinking, for a moment, and then said “no,” and then glanced around the table to signal that he was ready for the next question. The entire hourlong session was kind of uncomfortable in that vein — a combination of rote or unsuccessful questions and stilted answers — but everyone kept trying because everyone loves Peter Sagan.

I would like to admit right now that the story that you’re about to read is my second attempt at writing a piece attempting to peel back the layers behind the man in the rainbow stripes. In the first version, I read or watched every interview I could find that Slovakian star, still only 28, had done so far this year — about 50 or 60 at the time — and distilled the best of his answers into what journalists call an “as-told-to” story.

It was all smoke and mirrors, of course, but it kind of sounded as though Sagan, in his own voice, was telling an oddly coherent story about his life and philosophy and racing. It seemed to me that in each conversation he was giving out one or two little Easter eggs with some truth or personal tidbit in there. My favorites were a couple of interviews he did after meeting with the pope; Sagan’s quotes really illuminated how that experience had meant something to him.

Still, it really wasn’t much more than a clever cut-and-paste job, curating and juxtaposing things the three-time World Champion has said publicly in the past six months to create a portrait. [We’ve cleverly cut-and-pasted it below, as a sidebar. — Ed.]

So here’s the sequel. The premise this time is what journalists call a “write-around.” For months I’ve asked for an interview with Sagan; it never happened. So instead I interviewed people who know him or have other expertise and now I’ll try to construct a portrait with that material.

So here is what people who know Peter Sagan have to say about him.

“Peter is just on another plane than the rest of us”

“How would I describe Peter’s talent?” This is retired American pro Timmy Duggan repeating a question he was just asked. He and Sagan were teammates on the Liquigas-Cannondale team for two years. After a brief pause, Duggan offers a pithy response: “I would say he has insane mutant talent.”

Jonathan Vaughters agrees, although he uses a different vernacular to say so. “Physiologically, he’s an interesting specimen,” says Vaughters, the manager of the EF Education First-Drapac squad. “He’s not a pure sprinter nor does he have a huge aerobic engine. But he has a huge capacity to produce glycolytic power for a long period of time.”

Vaughters once got a chance to recruit Sagan, and though it didn’t work out, the young racer made an impression on him. “Peter was training in Park City, Utah,” Vaughters recalls. “At that point, he and Oleg Tinkov had fallen out. He and I both thought that Tinkov would just let him go. So I piloted a little plane with my son out to Park City and had dinner with Peter and his then fiancé. Peter definitely spent more time that evening talking to my son about video games than he and I talked about bike racing. But I came away from that thinking he is a good guy and a solid human being.”

Sagan is also one hell of a bike racer.

“I think even casual fans can relate to how he rides a bike,” says Vaughters. “His incredible bike-handling skills are self-evident. And the way he wins races. Think about his first world championship, the way he stomped everyone on one hill in Richmond. That sort of thing looks really good on TV. By contrast Chris Froome is spinning a tiny gear, making these awkward surges, just grinding people to death. Compared to that, Peter just looks spectacular. People get that.”

Vaughters says that Sagan’s bike-handling skills wind up offering him a huge physiological advantage. “The way he can surf from wheel to wheel, he actually brakes and then accelerates less than everyone else,” says Vaughters. “He winds up saving a measurable amount of energy in races because of it.”

American Ted King has seen the bike handling and the mutant talent up close, too. He and Sagan were teammates for three years at Liquigas-Cannondale. “Peter is just on another plane than the rest of us when it comes to cycling talent,” says King “He could be a professional trials rider or a pro triathlete. His consistency puts him on a different pedestal. Even now, I’m still blown away by his talent.”

Peter Sagan takes a bow after winning the 2018 Paris-Roubaix.

In an effort to explain Sagan’s gifts, King recalls a memory from a training ride on the strade bianche (white roads) in Tuscany shortly before the start of the spring classics. “We were finishing a hard stretch, going up this steep hill,” King says. “As he waited for other riders to catch back up, he popped a wheelie. And then took one hand off the bar. And then he started riding no hands. That’s how I try to explain his talent. He could ride up a steep dirt road doing 500 watts with no hands on the bar.”

Duggan also has seen such mind-blogging displays of wattage and gymnastics, but he wants to make one thing clear. “Sure, he has a ton of natural talent, but I don’t think I ever had a teammate that worked harder than Peter,” he says. “He makes it look easy, but trust me, that guy has done a ton of behind-the-scenes hard work for many years, since he was young.”

“I think his dominating operating system is being himself”

If you follow cycling closely, you’ve almost certainly seen or read some of the peculiar interviews that Sagan has done. He can seem impish or sophomoric, lighthearted or testy, or perhaps a little like Forrest Gump — simple but wise. It really depends.

The consensus among people who know him is that this routine is intentional. Sagan may still have a language barrier, but he’s smart enough to know exactly what he is doing.

“I think Peter often thinks the questions are dumb or rote,” says King. “His answers can be brutally honest. And honesty like that is not what journalists are looking for. He never seems to be trying to hide anything. But he can end up seeming aloof. The best way to understand Peter is to let his talent speak for itself.”

“I think his humor is a coping mechanism,” says Kristin Keim, a clinical sport psychologist based in Bellingham, Washington. She has not worked with Sagan but has watched his career closely and has numerous pro cyclists and elite riders as clients. “Sometimes Sagan seems to refuse to help journalists on purpose. It’s not a language barrier. Maybe that’s a statement: ‘It’s just a bike race — if you want to sit there and make a story out of it, that’s cool, you can spin it whatever way. I’m not going to give you what you want because I don’t have to.’ I think he’s intentionally more authentic to the fans than to journalists. He’s not racing to be covered on Cyclingnews.”

Vaughters agrees. “He’s highly intelligent and I think a lot of times the way he keeps getting asked the same questions can be tedious,” says a manager who still says he’d “cherish the chance” to have Sagan on his team. “Like he’s intentionally responding to stupid questions with equally stupid answers. It doesn’t bother me, he’s delivering so much value for his sponsors, I don’t think he needs to worry about being more polite in every interview. He never seems like a dick to me.”

Duggan takes this point of view a notch further, suggesting that Sagan’s behavior with journalists is actually beneficial to his performance.

“I can’t even imagine the level of attention he’s getting all the time, 24/7, from journalists and fans,” observes Duggan. “I can certainly see how he’d make a game out if. And more importantly for him to see how he could conserve his mental energy in terms of how he interacts with the press. I think his dominating operating system is being himself, that makes it really easy to deal with pressure — whether that’s pressure dealing with journalists or on the bike.”

“People feel gravitation toward the mystery”

Sagan does not dispense a ton of personal information to the public. He’s on social media, having fun or supporting a cause or celebrating a win, but you can tell he’s guarded about his life off the bike. He has an actual private life.

Earlier this year, just before the Amgen Tour of California, Manual for Speed made a flamboyant attempt to draw out all sorts of details about Sagan’s personal life. It was quite clear that the three-time world champ did not want to play along. The resulting video interview was, for me, painful to watch, as Sagan went to great lengths to deflect specific questions and the overall conceit of the interview.

“Athletes who feel confident and own who they are, they’re a little more secretive,” says Keim. “They don’t talk about their relationships, it’s just a different lens they have. Some athletes use social media to fill certain voids because they’re not confident. Sagan is obviously not like that.”

Bill Gifford, a veteran journalist who wrote an Outside Magazine cover story on Sagan last year, saw his private nature up close.

“Even if you have an hour alone with him, it’s hard to get anything really deep or personal out of him. Trust me,” Gifford says. “There’s a guardedness there. Maybe because of his unique kind of homegrown story, growing up in the middle of nowhere in a country out of the cycling mainstream, going to races with his brother and dad. He doesn’t have that thing where, in Italy or Belgium, he would have been worshipped since he was a teenager and grown into some cocky little prick.”

Duggan says that his former teammate has a very capable bullshit detector.

“My experience is that when you’re interacting with Peter and you’re being yourself, he’s more likely to be himself back at you,” Duggan offers. “And if he’s senses inauthenticity then you’re not going to get as deep or real or passionate a response. I just think he’s got his priorities straight in terms of enjoying life, putting his friends and family and life in general in front of results and sport, and not necessarily attaching his self-worth to his latest results like so many other athletes do.”

One of the interesting things about Sagan is that the more he refuses to share, the more fans seem to love him.

“The enigma is part of the appeal,” says Keim. “People feel gravitation toward the mystery. This is especially true and intriguing today with social media when you can feel a part of the lives of so many other athletes. I don’t think he acts that way as a marketing campaign, but it’s true that people can put their own story on who he is.”

“The best way to manage a racer like him is to stay out of the way”

In the end, people seem to love Peter Sagan for the way he wins races and tries to be himself as he pedals across the global stage.

“When I see him on TV it always looks like he’s having a blast,” says King, who shares a funny story that in the early days, Sagan worked on his English by watching episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” and asking teammates follow-up questions. “It was that way when we rode together, too. He realizes that bike racers are showmen. He’s always a great showman. People appreciate that.”

Keim thinks fans admire his mental strength.

“He goes into races with intentions, he always goes in there with something that he wants. So if he goes into a Classic where he knows the other teams are going to race negatively against him, then he’s like fuck, I’m just going to play with you and keep attacking,” says Keim. “He goes out there and he doesn’t care if he wins, he’s just going to race as hard as shit. That’s his legacy. He’s like the most consistent rider ever. He’s willing to take these great risks. He’s able to thrive because he always has the village of support around him.”

I ask Keim if she genuinely believes Sagan never ruminates over unsuccessful sprints in San Remo. She genuinely believes that.

“He doesn’t lie in bed thinking about not winning Milan-San Remo because he thinking about his wife and child,” she insists. “That’s the thing that makes him consistently such a great rider. It’s not just his physical capacity, it’s his ability to present, to be mindful and to go out there and execute whatever job. His ability to let go and to not digest the toxicity. That’s part of what makes him such a great athlete.”

King says that below the genuinely relaxed exterior is an athlete who cares deeply about his priorities. “Given how he was forced to leave the Tour last year, I can assure you that he is extremely focused on winning the green jersey,” says King, referring to the Tour de France points competition, which Sagan won five consecutive years before a controversial disqualification last year. “I know he has kept all those green jerseys and they mean something to him. I say this as a fan, I’m excited to see what he does. He’s always fun to watch.”

Duggan also is excited to watch Sagan at this year’s Tour. “For him, he’s won everything, so if doesn’t win or do something that’s flashy or spectacular, no one’s going to care,” he says. “I mean, the way you might see him in the Tour, getting in the breakaways going for points that way — what other sprinter does that? The way he attacks races, it’s better for him — and it’s good for the sport, too.”

Duggan and King both mention that Sagan is the kind of team leader who never barks orders or formulates complicated strategies. He’s found a way to be out on the road, having fun and getting his job done. “He’s not attached to the sport and to his results,” notes Duggan. “And that enables him, when he’s in the moment, riding his bike, to really be present and have fun with it.”

And that spirit is a team manager’s dream.

“The best way to manage a racer like him is to stay out of the way and just let him win,” says Vaughters. “He’s the kind of rider if you ask him what kind of support he needs in a big race, he’ll just ask you to make sure he gets enough water and bananas.”

Life is beautiful: Peter Sagan, in his own words

Cycling is like life — full of mysteries and flashes of brilliance and brushes with disappointment. This, perhaps, is why cycling fans have come to love the performance art of the Peter Sagan interview. Little strange gems pop up when you least expect it. Sagan gives very few long-form interviews. His answers can seem short or coy or philosophical, vaguely defensive or deliberately off-topic. Part of it may be due to English being his third language, but I prefer to believe that his delightfully elliptical interview responses reflect his true spirit. What follows is a curation of comments Sagan has made — in exclusive conversations, press conferences, pre- and post-race interviews, and social media posts. I read or watched more than 50 stories and videos — all published this year — to create this oral history. The overall narrative is obviously an editorial construct, but every single word of every single sentence is unadulterated Sagan.

A lot of things happen and you don’t know why. I do not know what is going to happen in life. Why do I have to think about that? I am here now.

When I was nine years old, I started to ride bikes, and I figured out I had some talent for it. I started with the mountain bike, and I always thought I wanted to be a mountain biker, not a road biker, but my destiny changed, and now I’m here as a road biker.

I travel with my mountain bike. It’s good for race preparation, you use much more of your body on the mountain bike. It’s good to activate different muscles, and it’s also good to have fun on the mountain bike — time passes differently on the mountain bike.

I was always riding a mountain bike as a kid, and I think I took some skills from that. I also rode cyclocross, motocross, and if you stick everything together, it helps you for sure.

For me art is not just a picture like this. Art can take many forms – even in sport. Look at motocross where they do triple back-flips in the mud and land without any issues. That’s art because the rider is doing something impossible for other people.

My parents met at a restaurant where they worked as waiters. After some time, my father opened a small supermarket. It was still one of the bigger ones in our city. Lots of people came to us and we were also selling beer in tanks. But after they opened big supermarkets in Zilina – like Tesco and Carrefour –two years later, my parents’ business was gone completely. My father opened a pizzeria next but they had to work very hard.

Everyone is different, we have difference personalities, that’s life. That’s why life is beautiful, everybody is different. I prefer to make some show for people and how it’s going, it’s going — it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s more important to enjoy, to be healthy and to have fun.

I don’t care about victories, it’s more about show.

For sure, it’s better to win than to lose. I don’t watch these critics or read the newspapers. Why do I have to read it? If you are good, you are good. If you are bad, you always have critics. It’s my life, it’s not the journalists’ life.

Everyone is always so serious, especially the journalists. You can also take life not so serious. You can have fun. When you lose the fun, then everything goes down.

If I have an idea how to win the race, I’m not going to tell you on television. The winner will be the first to the finish.

The right race strategy is difficult to work out so you have to decide things during the race. We’ll see how the weather is and if the sun comes out. It’s better not to think about it. The conditions are going to be the same for everyone, so what can I change about it? There are about 200 riders and so 200 different stories to be told during the race.

The secret to winning Milan-San Remo? I don’t know, because I’ve never won it.

It’s an important race because it has history. It’s important because it’s important.

In cycling, everything is spontaneous. You cannot think about some movement. Sometimes you have just one shot and you have to wait until you can do that. A race is a race and at the end you take it.

I don’t think about goals. I want to win important races. In the year there are a lot of important races, so there are lots of chances. If you don’t feel good, what can you do? It’s about your legs, not just about your head.

Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. That’s life.

Sometimes it’s better to not think and just do it.

Sometimes it’s better not to think and just do the things. I’m not focusing on what was before but what is today or tomorrow.

I don’t actually like gummy bears.

I’m a normal dad, who gets worried when he cries and I can’t understand what he needs; I also enjoy playing and smiling with him. My life has changed, things are more emotional now but everything else is pretty much the same. The truth is that Kate mostly looks after Marlon but I’m sure that’ll change when he gets older. I’ve lost some sleep but it’s been worth it for sure. It’s a beautiful feeling being a father, it’s difficult to describe, Marlon makes me so happy.

I don’t know if I’m a role model in cycling but it’s nice if people think that.

If you ask me how could I help cycling I would say by being myself. I just want to be myself. Not just do what somebody wants. I want to make people enjoy life – because so many people have a hard time.

You have to be with friends to have fun. Otherwise it’s going to be boring.

Sometimes I like to be bored — to do nothing.

I haven’t changed and won’t change. I’m driven by my feelings and I’m always open and transparent. It’s fundamental for me to be myself even if that means I go against the flow. Being myself is what makes me feel good.

A chance to meet the pope happens once in your life, if ever. I’m religious and my family is religious, so I was really happy to take my parents, Helena and Lubomir, with me. I like Pope Francis, he’s cool. He’s able to explain difficult concepts with just a few words. He’s an example for us all and plays an important role in the world. Even people who aren’t religious can find God, if they want, thanks to him.

Believing in God can give you direction in life. It can help you see the good things in life even in a difficult moment, it reminds you not to judge other people before having judged yourself. Only God can really judge us.

I think being the pope is much harder than being a cyclist. I’m not the superhero. I’m not saving people’s lives. I’m just a sportsman. It’s something I’m doing for myself and if people enjoy it then I’m happy.

When I was young, my dream was to win Paris-Roubaix, and then the world championship and the Tour of Flanders. Now I’ve won all three. It makes me very happy.

It’s always better to be off the front alone than with five people who don’t work together.

I was thoroughly fucked after Roubaix but I tried to enjoy it afterwards.

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