When the Peloton raced into the small Abruzzo town of Chieti in March of 2012 of that year’s edition of the Tirreno Adriatico, the spectators were surprised that it wasn’t their favoured son, Vincenzo Nibali who crossed the line first. It was, in fact, an impudent youngster of the same Liquigas team that passed his team leader in the closing stages. It was Peter Sagan, at only 22 years old, who blew the field apart as he gave an awesome display of power and speed, climbing hard on the rise to the finish, and taking the top podium spot.
It was not the first time that the Slovakian had beaten Nibali to the finish – a breakdown in communication between these teammates in the 2011 Vuelta gave Sagan his first grand tour win. Whatever the case it was a moment that launched a sensation in cycling and the world began to sit up and take note of Peter Sagan. He clearly had a taste for winning.
A few years down the line and he is a three time road race World Champion and undisputed superstar. Not only does this guy win, but he has attracted a massive following for the way he handles his bike, the way he talks and the way he styles his hair (and not just on his head). While many of the stars of the peloton appear to have had a character bypass, The Terminator, as he is known, exudes charisma, class and personality.
Growing up in a backwater of Slovakia his parents were so busy running their small grocery store that the young Peter’s upbringing was left to his elder two brothers and sisters. It was his sister who lent him her supermarket bike which won him his first race, despite limited gearing.
He was a precocious talent who could win on a mountain bike, cross bike or a road bike (even a supermarket bike). To this day he’s able to compete at the highest level across lots of disciplines. He was the junior world champion on a mountain bike and it was this event that he competed for in the 2012 Olympics.
Sagan’s bike handling skills have become legendary and you can see videos of him bunny hopping up stairs on his road bike, leaping over street furniture and, of course performing wheelies up Alpe d’Huez while everyone else is just struggling to get up the mountain.
He’s relied on these intuitive and instinctive skills on many occasion – who can forget the time he swerved onto the pavement to avoid a dog walker, his shoe coming loose from its pedal in the middle of a sprint (he re-clipped back in and went on to win the race, of course) and how he has, on several occasions, recovered from a crash to win.
Sagan’s command of English has improved over the years, but his struggles with the language occasionally made him appear dumbstruck. He’s no fool, though. I loved it when an American reporter asked him why he liked visiting the US. Was it the burritos, he asked?
“Burritos are from Mexico, I think,” was his quick-witted reply.
It’s his post race interviews that have attracted the most attention as he larks around with schoolboy mischief- grabbing Chris Froome’s cap and fooling about in the background of the camera shot. It’s also got him into trouble, most famously when he pinched a podium girl’s bottom. His apology video is just fabulous and he looks every inch the naughty schoolboy.
His hair has defied all fashion – the floppy centre parting developed into a full on lion’s mane and some are pleased to see that he’s reverted back to a more conventional hairstyle now. He courted controversy at the beginning of the 2016 season with hairy legs, anathema for a professional cyclist, prompting former teammate Vincenzo Nibali to present him with a razor and Stephen Roche to publicly criticise him.
But it’s that individuality and scorn of the conventional that have made him so appealing to watch. He made a full on recreation of the Grease video with his girlfriend, then appeared at his wedding to her wearing traditional Slovakian dress while he cycled across a trapeze wire. A showman, certainly, but not one without substance.
Sagan’s power and abilty to win has meant that he’s become one of the most marked men in the peloton meaning that it’s difficult for him to pull off a surprise attack. What’s more, if he happens to be in a breakaway, everyone leaves him to do the work – they know that if he’s not exhausted by the final km, he’s sure to win. A run of seconds and thirds at the beginning of his time at Tinkoff, irritated the billionaire owner who threatened to cut his wages.
Sagan remained philosophical and of course, the victories came in the end. To this day he has an excellent attitude when it comes to missing the top place. “I cannot always win,” he says. Rather he is someone who just seems to delight in being on a bike.
His historic third successive victory in the world championships showed, not only that he is an incredibly powerful and strong rider, but he has also learnt how to hide in the pack until the last minute. TV commentators at the worlds were struggling to pick him out in the final few kilometres, suspecting that he’d had a crash. He was just playing Mr Invisible, perhaps a new superpower that this cycling phenomenon has had to acquire to keep on winning.
Peter Sagan, we salute you and long may you reign as World Champion!