There seem to be many pieces hailing Peter Sagan as “good for cycling” right now. I can see why given his style on the bike and off it at times is refreshing but at the same time a wheelie here or a quote there isn’t that radical. But can he, should he, be the new icon of men’s pro cycling?
It wasn’t long ago, days even, that Peter Sagan was being hailed as serial loser, at least from the peanut gallery. All those second places earned him number one in the World Rankings but he, as Antoine Blondin wrote about Merckx, belongs to the cast of champions “who loses when he doesn’t win”. For example Tiesj Benoot makes the podium in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and that’s great for him but Peter Sagan “only” finishes second, he lost to Greg Van Avermaet. A similar story in the E3 Harelbeke, the two-up sprint with Michał Kwiatkowski was as much about Sagan’s defeat as it was the Pole’s triumph.
All this shows the interest and attention given to Sagan. It’s been happening long before he became World Champion, the story was similar at the Tour de France last year where Sagan took the points jersey early but couldn’t win a stage despite his prodigious efforts. A year ago his spring classics campaign was defined, sadly, by the image of him empty his bowels in a ditch early in Paris-Roubaix.
Something seems to have changed since his win in the Tour of Flanders. Finally he’s landed the Monument classic he’s been aiming for. It’s generated a lot of “Sagan is good for cycling” pieces in many languages, there are too many to point out by cursor and it’d be unfair to single out one piece.
However what is there to get excited about with Sagan? Plenty of course but a lot of it, the animated GIF’s of him pulling a wheelie or groping a podium hostess, or pruned quotes like “no one wants to work with me, it’s always better to drop everybody” seems inconsequential. He bought a remote control car this week and it made the news, as if buying a toy is newsworthy. It’s the stuff of internet viruses but like, say, a dancing cat, equally trivial.
There’s obviously a more substantial side to Sagan, or rather several substantial sides. For starters there’s the cyclist, the raw power that’s so visible you don’t need an SRM display to spot it: when he goes the others are gone. At times he almost looks too big, a ball of muscle: the Incredible Hulk goes cycling. Mario Cipollini met him out on the bike – as happens – and told him to get a bike fit because he looked clumsy on the bike. Certainly Sagan doesn’t have that indescribable class on the bike with the fluid pedalling or the elegant poise. But obviously it works.
There are other sides too, when Sagan won the Worlds he launched into speech about the migration crisis in Europe which had his interlocutor doing the verbal equivalent of pulling up the handbrake. Was Sagan just letting rip with verbal diarrhoea after 250km having seen five minutes on the subject of CNN the night before; or is this a topic about which he’d formed ideas after more reading and review? We don’t know. Similarly he’s got his own rider development team too, an interest in giving opportunity to others, a most laudable venture. In some ways Sagan resembles the moon, we see one bright side with the wheelies, the long hair and that Grease video but don’t see the hidden side. His English has improved and he speaks decent Italian but I wonder whether a fuller interview in his native Slovak would bring, presumably he’d be more expressive and expansive. Nobody expects him to hold court on a range of topics but we surely learn a lot more. Maybe it’s a good thing, he’s already fled Slovakia for Monaco citing privacy reasons, it’s not that we need to know everything and he’s entitled to his private spaces too.
Above all the idea behind this piece is concern that if Sagan is being held up as something good for cycling then it shouldn’t really be for him to carry the sport. Half of the attraction of Sagan is his parrhesia, a Greek term that means “to speak everything”. There’s no wooden language, no stock corporate tone in his responses as he seems to say what’s on his mind. It’s this lightness of being that is refreshing. In short he’s busy being Peter Sagan rather than a flag bearer for pro cycling. Whether it’s floating around a bike race, dancing in leather trousers or breaking mini-taboos about leg shaving, the best thing is that he’s out there doing just what he wants rather than doing what we or others want or need.
When it comes to flag bearers it’s better for the sport if other riders share the load and fortunately they do. For example it’s little reported but Marcel Kittel played a huge role in the return of German television to the Tour de France. He helped convince them over a coffee… and another coffee, apparently the meeting went on for hours as Kittel convinced the broadcasters to return. He’s just one example but look to how Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish have excited interest in Britain, how Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot have rekindled excitement in France. Even the stoic Nairo Quintana has cycling back on top on Colombia.
Peter Sagan is an exciting rider. Some of the excitement like the wheelies and throwaway quotes seems trivial although sections of the internet will thrive off this and in a competitive media landscape I suppose it’s good if a wheelie or a musical youtube clip about cycling displace a footballer or a cat, it can only help. Yet on a more profound level for me it’s his racing that’s the most interesting aspect, the ability to impose himself on a race and to express himself on the bike, he can unlock races in a way others cannot. Yet for all we’re seeing before, during and after a race, for all the showmanship and the power, there’s a nagging sense that we’re only seeing one or two dimensions of Sagan when there could be so much more. Saying he’s the key to renewed public interest in the sport seems unlikely, one person cannot do it all and besides Sagan is too busy being himself to worry about the politics and dynamics of pro cycling. If he’s as good as he promises to be now then his repeat wins could, whisper it, become boring.