Peter Sagan, The Early Years

Right now there’s a lot of interest in Peter Sagan’s future, whether the short term matter of whether he can win this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders or broad questions asking where are his limits… or if he’ll implode like some celebrity supernova, engulfed by his own success?

But what of the early years? Here’s a short tale from 2006 when aged 15 he took on riders several years older. And beat them.

The race is the Regionem Orlicka, the Tour of the Orlík Region in the Czech Republic. It’s a stage race for junior riders held every summer that attracts the best Czech and foreign entrants from nearby countries. The 2012 edition had the German national champion, as well as teams from Slovenia, Poland and the Russian team in full Itera kit on pro Focus bikes. This is one of Europe’s bigger junior stage races. The list of winners includes several pros today like Leopold König of NetApp-Endura and over the years Peter Luttenberger, Peter Wrolich and Pawel Padrnos have won.

Sagan team Slovakia
Now to 2006 when the Slovak junior team rode with both Peter and his older brother Juraj (say “yuu-rye”) on the team. The race had four stages. Stage 1 was a hilly 80km loop where Sagan stayed in the bunch. Stage 2 was a time trial and while many had special bikes and other aero gear, Sagan finished tenth with a just pair of clip-on bar extensions and a skinsuit. This was enough to put him in the blue jersey for the nejlepsi kadet or best U-16 rider.

Stage 3 saw Křížové Hory or Cross Hill on the route, the big stage for the climbers. But the experienced juniors found the unknown kid in a blue jersey on his a heavy bike with bottom-of-the-range Campagnolo Mirage parts spoiled their day. Sagan came into the finish with Jakub Danačík and a minute to spare on everyone else. Sagan’s sprint was so strong he put time into Danačík in the finishing straight. He had time to sit up and, yes, do a goofy victory salute suggesting an early familiarity with victory.

Stage 4 saw a group form with both Sagan brothers and other strong riders. They came to the finish and Peter led out Juraj who won the stage. Peter Sagan won the race overall and of course collected the blue jersey too. Standing on the podium, he looks visibly younger than the others in the race and stands with the same faint smile we see today. The rest is history.

Cycling biographies are full of tales of the precocious youngster who wins his first race or beats older riders. In 1961 a 16 year old won a bike race in Petit-Enghien ahead of 18 year olds, his name was Edouard Merckx. Bernard Hinault borrowed his brother’s bike to try his first race and won in Planguenoual. A teenage Greg LeMond got permission to race against grown men as he was too good for boys his age.

The list of young champions is long but Peter Sagan is a notable case, especially since two years later and still a junior he’d go on to win the mountain bike World Championship and collect silver at the cyclocross World Championships too.

Sagan podium
From Lanškroun 2006 to Liège 2012, Sagan knows the podium protocols well

Many thanks to Czech cycling website for sharing the photos from the SKP Duha Lanškroun club, all are used with their kind permission here. You’ll find more photos of Sagan’s early triumph in the gallery on their website.

41 thoughts on “Peter Sagan, The Early Years”

  1. “Cycling biographies are full of tales of the precocious youngster who wins his first race or beats older riders”

    Practically every pro, whether a star like Sagan or a barely-heard-of domestique, has tales of winning against older kids, winning all their junior races etc.

    • Yes, it’s common for pro champions and humble domestiques alike, although there are some exceptions. The story can be different each time, for example not everyone wins their first race but by contrast many people who win their first race probably don’t become champions either.

      • I think yesterday’s winner – Cavendish – was one such case. There are many stories of how he was told that he just wasn’t good enough. There is a picture somewhere on google of him coming 3rd in the British junior champs road race (to Matt Brammeier and Geraint Thomas (what a podium!)) so he was hardly a slouch but he even tells the story himself of being left in the ditch one day because he just couldn’t keep up. I guess his win last night showed that he has that sheer determination that is missing in most of us mortals, even if we were lucky enough to have his talent.

  2. Interesting, but not unlike many other pros. You typically have to be that good to even become a pro.

    There are very similar stories about EBH, for example. He was so dominant in his junior years that the tactics of the other teams was simply to beat him (they all cooperated…). Take Ringerike GP in 2006, for example: EBH, the youngest guy in the race, won 4/5 stages + overall & all jerseys. He even won with a time gap on every stage, even on the flat sprint stages where he’d just attack with 1 k to go and ride everyone off his wheel!

    Weirdly enough, the few pros who weren’t great as juniors, are those who have dominated cycling this year: Froome and Porte. Those guys barely even rode a bike when they were junior…

      • Leaving aside the “secret sauce” discussion for a moment, is it really so outrageous to expect that an athlete with the right physical attributes can succeed in cycling, particularly climbing and TTing, without beginning as a junior? And wouldn’t this particularly be the case with endurance athletes from other disciplines?

        • No, especially because climbing and TT involve less of the skill and subtleties, they become a ramp test of fitness rather than a lesson in positioning, tactics and more. Of course the chess side of the sport can be learned too.

          One example is Lotto’s Bart de Clercq who did well in athletics for years but only started cycling in 2008, became elite amateur in 2009 and by 2010 turned pro and won a stage in the Giro in 2011.

  3. When I first started racing a wise old guy told me, “There’s no hiding in bike racing,” by which he meant if you have the talent, it’s going to show up. Only took me a few races to realize I didn’t have anything to hide!

    This actually makes me wonder if there are pros who didn’t have these stand out performances against their genetic inferiors and instead scrabbled for wins with pluck and determination before slowly moving up the ranks.

    • Patrick Lefevere as said this aloud. The young Sagan won the 2008 junior worlds on a Specialized and through the bike company he went for tests with the Belgian team. They were interested but Sagan and his father “wanted too much money” so Lefevere, famously careful with money, said no. The junior Sagan almost gave up on the road but Liquigas and Cannondale showed an interest and he did a lab test which blew them away, the numbers were off the scale. A contract was quickly produced. I don’t know the sum but it was not huge, a fraction of the amount paid for the likes of Phinney or Dombrowski. Probably one of the best signings ever, no?

  4. To make it as a pro surely your talent is going to vastly outshine those of your fellow amateurs so when you start racing you are going to do pretty well?

  5. Talking about showing early promise you to take what cycling has been going through into consideration. Without drugs the entire peloton would give the same result, no? Pantani was a monster as an amateur, same with Armstrong and

    • It’s a hard question to answer. Pantani seems to have been good but not exceptionally so, unlike Armstrong who started in triathlon. But there are so many variables here, from physical maturity to experience (Sagan started racing very young) to access to coaching and more.

  6. I do believe that Sagan is a one of a kind and has the potential of a Merckx of a Lemond (or an Hinault). He can do anything. And this story of an early start seems to tone down my initial suspicions. Thanks inrng!

    I like the way he can outride others as he did last semester like Cancellara did years back in the Tour, but also love that he can outsprint Cavendish. And unlike some yank p.o.s. we’d all love to forget, he rides every race, no fear, no “saving himself” — and looks like he’s having fun when he wins!

    I hope he wins Flanders!

  7. Isn’t there also a story floating around about him winning a big MTB race on his sister’s bike? Does anyone have more information on that? Curious to see where he will go. Hope he keeps both feet and at least one wheel on the ground.

  8. I think the “late bloomer” stories are much more interesting and compelling than the amazing juniors that kill everything that moves. The genuflecting to the child prodigy wunderkind is a bit over played, hmm? I have my fingers crossed that INRNG will consider a late bloomer story at some point, given the exception quality of research and verse. I’m sure some will say this is a bit like the “underdog” motif which is also a story that becomes repetitive.

    One “late bloomer” that comes to mind is Svein Tuft. Not that he is a super winner like Sagan and other Übers. Tuft had not entered his first bike race until age 23. Eight years later, he entered the World Tour since 2009, first with Garmin, and now with Orica.

    He has notched a number of favorable performances in time trail events, of course, not of the grandiose scale of Sagan, or even Phinney, others.

  9. It’s more difficult to do it the other way round; take 100 youngsters who’ve won races and try to predict which one will be world champion in years to come. It’s much easier to look at a current top rider and say, ‘but of course, it is obvious he was going to be a champion when he won races as a junior.

    Still, Peter Sagan is a top bloke, and this is a great story.

    • Indeed. Take Roman Kreuziger who was attracting interest from pro teams whilst an early year junior, he’d win races across Europe. Today he is a solid rider capable of top-10 in a grand tour but not the outrageous champion some predicted.

      • I guess someone who knows a bit about statistical data analysis could easily sort out what kind of junior race wins have predictive power and play a bit of ‘moneyball’ . Still, there are hard to predict factors like social pressure to get a ‘real job’ and at least some of the data on later success is tainted by the access to drugs and the willingness to take them.

  10. Great article and a fascinating insight into Sagan’s early years. I think Cavendish is correct when he describes Sagan as a ‘once in a generation’ rider. He has the capability to dominate major races for years to come.

    Several years ago I rode in a reasonable quality amateur road race around the hills of the Mendips in Somerset, England which finished up a long steep climb. The race was convincingly won by an unknown 16 year old, his name, Dan Martin.

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