The weekly spin: A freewheeling interview with Peter Sagan
It’s a Friday afternoon in Sacramento. In 48 hours, Peter Sagan will take his second victory of the 2019 season, narrowly out-sprinting American Travis McCabe in front of the state capitol building. But that’s unknown in this moment. Right now, Sagan is fresh out of an Amgen Tour of California press conference, the same one he’s attended each year for the past decade, and is sitting in a hotel hallway, near an elevator.
It’s a hotel Sagan knows well. He’s raced in California every year since 2010; his entire professional career. He won five of eight stages in 2012. He won the overall in 2015. He won stages while wearing the rainbow jersey in 2017 and 2018. He holds the record for stage wins. He’s become synonymous with the race, annually its biggest draw, and uses the time in California to connect with Specialized, which has been his sponsor since 2015.
And yet something is different this time around.
In years past, Sagan came to the Amgen Tour riding the wave of success. Last year, he was fresh off a win at Paris-Roubaix. In 2016, he had just won the Ronde van Vlaanderen. In 2013, he came to California after having just won Gent-Wevelgem and Brabantse Pijl. Even his California debut, in 2010, came just off stage wins at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie.
That’s not the case on this Friday afternoon in Sacramento. Sagan came to California with just one victory in 2019, Stage 3 of the Santos Tour Down Under on January 17 — nearly four months earlier. Eight days after this moment, he’ll finish the race with a stage win, two podium finishes, a day in the leader’s jersey, and second in the points classification.
No, this 2019 season feels more like 2015, when Sagan came to California with just one victory on the season, a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico. That was when he rode for Tinkoff-Saxo, and team owner Oleg Tinkov was publicly berating his highly paid rider for underperforming, threatening to cut his salary.
That was the year the Amgen Tour was forced to relocate its time trial from Big Bear Lake to Magic Mountain due to snow, creating a short, technical and hilly course that was tailor-made for Sagan. The Slovakian won the stage, took the race lead, turned himself inside out on Mount Baldy to stay within 47 seconds of stage winner Julian Alaphilippe, and then took back the race lead for good via bonus seconds in the final sprint in Pasadena.
A few months later, Sagan would win a fourth consecutive green jersey at the Tour de France, and then go on to win the first of three world championship titles, in Richmond, Virginia. That was also the year he married his longtime girlfriend, Katarina. In many ways, it was the most transformative season of his career.
The Peter Sagan who is sitting with me in a Sacramento hotel hallway is a different man. He’s a father now. He’s also divorced. He’s a Monument winner, the cobblestone classics rider of reference in the post-Boonen, post-Cancellara era. He’s a three-time world champion. He’s got his own line of Specialized products. The honeymoon phase of his career is over; he was ejected from the 2017 Tour de France, and crashed heavily at the 2018 Tour. He’s nearly 30 years old — no longer the wonder kid from Slovakia. He’s a veteran now.
He’s also the biggest star in professional cycling, his time in a constant state of high demand.
Sagan is tied in the record books for green jerseys at the Tour de France (six) and world championship titles (three). And yet here is, once again answering questions about a spring classics shutout, about his racing acumen, and about his future in the sport.
And the thing is, it’s not that Sagan didn’t race well at the spring classics. He just wasn’t the Sagan of the past few seasons.
Coming off illness — he reportedly had diarrhea for six days leading up to Tirreno-Adriatico in mid-March — he made the split over the Poggio at Milan-San Remo but botched up the sprint, finishing fourth when he fixated on Alejandro Valverde, over his right shoulder, instead of focusing on Alaphilippe, who came up on his left side.
Sagan was racing at the front at E3 Harelbeke when something struck his rear derailleur with 25km to go; unable to shift gears, he could not follow accelerations on the Tiegemberg climb and watched the head of the race roll up the road.
At Gent-Wevelgem, Sagan found himself in the all-star breakaway after crosswinds split the bunch; he later was part of the front group of four when the race broke apart with 65km to go. Once that group was caught inside the final 20km, the three-time Gent-Wevelgem winner had ridden at the front of the race for nearly 180km, and had nothing left for the sprint.
Sagan finished 11th at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, in the front group but unable to follow Alberto Bettiol’s race-winning move. He was fifth at Paris-Roubaix, where he looked poised to contest the victory until he simply ran out of energy in the final 15km.
His anticipated attempt at the Ardennes Classics, however, was a bust. He did not finish Amstel Gold Race or Flèche Wallonne, and did not make his anticipated appearance at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Ultimately, Sagan did not reach the podium in seven starts between Milan-San Remo and Flèche Wallonne.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Sagan’s position as the rider of reference at the cobblestone classics is under threat. Dutch star Mathieu van der Poel had a classics debut that is the stuff of legends, with wins at Amstel Gold Race, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl and GP Denain, and fourth-place finishes at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem. Only Alaphilippe had a better spring classics campaign, albeit on different terrain.
“The results don’t tell you everything,” Sagan said in an interview published on a Slovakian website a few days before we met. “After being sick in the spring, I was rather weak, and when I was better I immediately returned to racing, which didn’t do me any good. But it is cycling, no one will wait for you. I lost a few weeks of training and it was what it was. On the other hand, I was still fighting for victory in Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, or was at least at the front. That’s why I rate it positively.”
And that’s where I started our interview.
A CONVERSATION WITH PETER SAGAN
CT: When you look back at your spring classics, are you satisfied with how you’ve performed?
PS: Ah, well, it could be better. It could be worse. As always, we have to take what life brings us. Everyone has gotten used to me winning all the races, but cycling is a hard sport and you can see that I was a lot of time in the front, but not really contesting for the win. I did already a classics season like this, or worse, and it doesn’t matter. What’s happened has happened, it’s in the past, and I’m looking forward for the next period of racing.
CT: In 2015, you came off a similar classics season, and then you won the overall at the Amgen Tour of California.
PS: Yeah, and that was a worse classics season than this year. I don’t see something bad, what’s happened. Every year is different. You have to accept it. At Gent-Wevelgem, nobody could have known what was going to happen later, from the start it was always crosswind, then a lot of climbs. For me, at the front, I was thinking the bunch was going to split and they were never going to catch us. We would pull at the front and it would be hard to catch us, but if they don’t split, they are for sure going to catch us because the last 30km was into a headwind. And it just happened, what happened. And after that it was really hard to do a sprint with the sprinters, or the riders who were always in the bunch, when I was at the front pulling all day.
CT: Was it disappointing that you weren’t able to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège?
PS: No, actually I was happy that I didn’t go and race Liège when I watched it on television and saw the cold weather, and the results.
CT: Bora-Hansgrohe has had a very successful spring, with  victories coming from Bennett, Buchmann, Schachmann, Ackermann. A few years ago it seemed this team was built solely around you, but now the team has taken on its own identity. How do you feel about that?
PS: Very good. If I can see that the teammates are winning, and it’s young guys, and I can also help with something a little bit, to build a team or share my experience, I am happy — very happy, and satisfied.
CT: Does it take a little pressure off your shoulders when your teammates are winning while you are not?
PS: Ah, it’s okay. For sure I have some pressure, but I don’t take it in a bad way.
CT: Last year I arranged for Katarina Nash to interview you at your gran fondo in Truckee. She asked you about Mathieu van der Poel’s decision to focus on mountain-bike racing through the 2020 Olympic Games, and you said you didn’t know who Mathieu van der Poel was.
PS: Now I know [laughs].
CT: Was that true, that you didn’t know who he was a year ago?
PS: Well, a year ago I knew about him from cyclocross, but I didn’t care about it, you know.
CT: What did you think about him at the spring classics this year?
PS: Oh, it was unbelievable. Impressive.
CT: What were your thoughts about Marcel Kittel’s announcement yesterday?
PS: What happened?
CT: With Kittel? He’s broken his contract with Katusha, and he’s stepping away from racing.
CT: You hadn’t heard that?
PS: No. I was very busy, the past five days.
CT: He announced that it was a mutual agreement with the team to end the contract, and that he won’t be racing again this season. He’s going to take time away from racing. Is that surprising to you?
PS: After 10 years as a professional, it’s hard to do something that will surprise me in this world.
CT: Your current contract runs through 2021. I read some articles that stated that you’re not sure what you’re going to do after that, that there was talk about mountain-bike racing.
PS: You know, journalists are creating a lot of polemics and things around me, but what do I have to answer? 2021 is still two and a half years, and nobody knows where we are going to be in two and a half years.
CT: Do you still enjoy being a professional bike racer? Do you enjoy it as much as you did, say, five years ago?
PS: Well, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s much better when there is good weather.
CT: Five years ago you had not won the Tour of Flanders, you had not won Paris-Roubaix, you had not won the world championship, you had not won six green jerseys. Given these accomplishments, is the fire still there? Or have you done what you set out to do? Do you have the same motivation, the same passion, as you had five years ago?
PS: You know, I can beat some records. The green jersey, the world champion’s jersey. We will see, this year, or next year, or in two or three years. For sure I have to have some motivation, otherwise it’s going to be hard.
CT: I come from a mountain-bike background, so personally, I found it very interesting and exciting when you raced at the Olympics.
PS: I only started the race, no? [laughs]
CT: Well, it was a hell of a first lap. I know mountain biking is in your blood.
PS: Well, I’ve lost a lot in seven years.
CT: You can get it back.
PS: Well, it’s hard. It’s hard because if I can prepare for one year on the mountain bike, it’s going to be different. Before the Olympic Games, I had only one month, and it was after the Tour. It was pretty hard.
CT: You’ve done the Amgen Tour of California for 10 years in a row. When I think about what’s left for you to accomplish in your career, a Giro d’Italia stage win, or a day in the maglia rosa, is high on that list. But you’ve never raced the Giro. Is that something that you’d like to do?
PS: For sure, before I end my career, I’d like to do the Giro. That’s difficult to do with the spring classics and the Tour. It’s difficult because I have to be ready from January through October. And that’s hard. It’s not that I’m going to prepare for the Tour de France, and after that I’m finished. A lot of races, a lot of influence from people, journalists, everything. It’s all the year, one big circuit.
CT: Is that a decision you make each year, after the season is over and you’ve had some space, and some time? Do you think about racing the Giro when you’re making plans for the next season?
PS: Yeah, for sure. It hasn’t happened yet. We will see when it is going to happen.
CT: What do you remember from the first-ever bike race — the first time you pinned on a number and lined up?
PS: It was 1998, before the winter, it was the last race of the season, close to my hometown. It was me and Juraj, and also my father, he did some amateur races, and my oldest brother. They didn’t finish, they stopped to smoke some cigarettes. [laughs]. It was a mountain-bike race. I was eight years old.
CT: How did you finish?
PS: It was three races. The first day, I broke something on my bike and I didn’t finish. The next day, in the morning, was a time trial, which I won. In the afternoon was another start, all together, and I was eighth or ninth. My brother won the GC, all three races together.
CT: So somewhere in Slovakia there are some people your age who can say, “I beat Peter Sagan as a kid, in a mountain-bike race.”
PS: Well, at that time I didn’t have a license.
CT: Did you know right away that you wanted to continue racing?
PS: I just tried, a year later, to make all the races of the whole season, to do the racs, to do the training. I was winning a lot. I just continued because I was winning.
CT: Who has been the biggest mentor in your career?
PS: I think Juraj, and my oldest brother, Milan.
CT: Does Milan still ride?
PS: No, he never rode. He just tried that one race, when I was eight years old.
CT: So how has he mentored you?
PS: More in my private life than in the cycling world.
CT: Can you describe how Juraj has mentored you throughout your career?
PS: Well, without Juraj, I would not be here, for sure. He was first to start the bicycle, and after one year I followed him. We just grew up on the bicycle. When there was bad weather, I didn’t go for a ride because it was raining, or I didn’t want to go, it was hard, and he always drove me to do an effort, to be good on the bicycle. And after, I could become a professional.
CT: So he pushed you.
PS: Yeah. And also, I follow him because he is older. Always, when he did something — if I was lazy — my parents would say, “Look at Juraj, it was raining and he was training for two hours on the bike while you were sitting and playing PlayStation.” And I would say, “Yeah, but I am lazy.” And year by year, I just got better. And we were always training together.
CT: When did you stop being lazy?
PS: I am still lazy [laughs]. I enjoy if I can just lay on the bed and do nothing, I enjoy that.
CT: For all of the talk of your talent, I understand that you train very, very hard.
PS: Who told you that?
CT: I think I may have read it, or heard it on a podcast. Maybe someone told me, perhaps one of your former teammates at Cannondale, like Timmy Duggan or Ted King. Is that accurate?
PS: I don’t know. I don’t know the difference between training very hard and training the way that I train.
CT: How has being a father affected your career?
PS: Well, I’m very happy to be a father. I just wish I could stay more at home. But I do what I am doing, and it’s only for a few years, but sometimes it’s hard to decide what to do. But I am trying my best to spend time with him when I am free.
CT: It has to be difficult, being on the road a lot. Of all the accomplishments in your career, when you look back — and it doesn’t even need to be a result — what stands out as the day that you’ve enjoyed the most? What is your best memory?
PS: Like, emotions, or…?
CT: Yeah, or just the day when everything came together, and you enjoyed being a bike racer more than any other day.
PS: The day Marlon was born was the biggest thing in my life. It’s my biggest accomplishment.