In the land of Peter Sagan

Peter Sagan is, by any measure, the world’s best cyclist. Bursting onto the scene after proving himself in mountain bike racing, he continues to surprise. But where did this Slovakian cycling prodigy procure his talent? NRC traveled to Zilina to find out.

Peter Sagan during the last year's UCI cycling gala in Doha, Qatar. Artur Widak/Getty

A short, stocky woman, close to sixty, appears in the doorway of the tallest house on the street. Her hair is tinted deep red, her face displays a mixture of distrust and curiosity. She’s wearing gold earrings with ruby colored stones and reading glasses and is dressed in tight-fitting clothes. On her feet are a pair of slippers.

When I mention Peter Sagan, she quickly steps back and opens the door wider. She leads us through a dark hallway and into a modest kitchen-diner. I follow her into another small room where a television produces a booming voice. Two rooms of six square meters each, this is where she lives.

She turns off the television and returns to the kitchen, its walls covered with photos of Sagan. Snapshots of him as a teenager balancing on the rear wheel of his bike, one hand on the handlebars in the pose that will become his trademark. There’s also a photo of him biting on one of his many gold medals and of him as a small boy next to a shiny yellow bicycle, his big brother Juraj standing beside him.

This is where the current world’s best cyclist grew up, in a prosperous neighborhood of Zilina, a drab manufacturing town of 80,000 in north-western Slovakia where many earn a living in the mammoth Kia plant just outside of town.

The woman is Helena Sagan, Peter’s mother. Her hands tremble as she presents a photo album, proof of her recent trip to the Monaco home of her famous son. She only goes when she’s invited. She can barely afford a phone call to Monaco, she says.

Bunny hopping on one wheel:

No hander wheelie:

Bike as extension of body

Those who have seen Sagan cycle can’t deny how the frame of his bike seems to be an extension of his body in ways not seen in cyclists before. In the extensive footage of his career, it’s visible as he pedals uphill popping a wheelie with a grin on his face, or while balancing on his rear wheel for as long he wants. He’s an acrobat on a unicycle, riding the hood of the team captain’s car and then parking his bike on its roof. When it comes to skills, he’s incomparable. This, combined with his fearlessness and desire to win, have helped propel him to the pinnacle of world cycling.

In fact, Sagan has learned to move so efficiently through the peloton that he scarcely wastes any energy, and he’s apt at all kinds of tricks to keep himself focused during endless spring classics. One of those tricks involves how he copes with pain. Sagan’s longtime coach, Peter Zanicky: “Peter knows his rivals give up when they think they’ve reached their pain threshold. As soon as Peter reaches that threshold, he tells himself he’s only at 70 percent. He has an extraordinary 30 percent left.’

In last year’s Tour of Flanders, Sagan cycled alone for the final seven kilometers against the wind, his wrists draping the handlebars. Behind him a group of riders couldn’t get closer. Zanicky: “At that moment Peter wasn’t thinking about the race, his mind wandered elsewhere. He told me afterwards that he hadn’t felt any anxiety or pain, instead he concentrated on the animals along the track, the spectators. He does everything by feel. Don’t come to him with wattage meters or training sessions, he doesn’t see the point.”

Unusual talent

Helena Sagan gets nostalgic when she talks about Peter’s childhood. She can hardly believe that once she used to manage a family of six. Peter, the youngest, was unstoppable. Moving was instinctual for him. In kindergarten he would sneak out of the classroom and run back home because he couldn’t stand having to sit still and do what he was told.

The Sagan family are grocers who bought their store right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The lack of competition meant financially they were comfortable. Peter would hang around the grocery for days, playing with shopping carts, constantly getting into mischief. “He used to entertain everyone,” says Helena smiling, gazing at her hands.

The youngest Sagan played football, basketball, hockey – it made no difference, as long as he was moving. He followed his older brother Juraj, even when that meant joining the local cycling club at age twelve. According to coach Zanicky, Sagan was small for his age and initially his achievements didn’t attract much attention. But after three months racing on the silver mountain bike his father had bought him, he began to beat boys two years older than him.

Zanicky recalls a match in Dubnica, sixty kilometers west of Zilina. “I was waiting for Peter on a hill three hundred meters from the start. All the boys raced past, but not Peter. When I walked back, I saw him standing at the start, crying. He had hit his knee against the bike frame and now he thought the competition didn’t make any sense.” Zanicky put Sagan back on the saddle and ordered him to start cycling. Maybe he could catch up.

At the finish line, Zanicky was dumb struck. Grim-faced and red-eyed, Sagan pedaled his front wheel across the line just before the leader, a Hungarian. He had won the race. It was the first time Zanicky felt he was dealing with an unusual talent.

Lubomir Sagan’s shrine

Lubomir Sagan, Peter’s father, has his own entrance to the house he shares with Helena. He’s a man with a substantial paunch, dressed in a sweater with ‘PS’, his son’s initials, on his chest. When I convince him to let me in he instructs me to take off my shoes and put on a pair of available slippers.
I follow him up the stairs, which extend to four floors. Shelves full of trophies line the walls. There are 126 trophies in all, according to Lubomir. “And that isn’t even half of them.” As a teenager Peter won nearly all the races he entered. There were mountain biking tournaments, cyclo-cross races and later, road races.

Then a door opens up to a room where he cohabits with a shrine of memorabilia. The contrast with Helena’s modest section of the house couldn’t be greater. The floor is natural stone, the ceiling is adorned with handmade arches and the kitchen boasts a fashionable cooking island. There’s a small bar with a transparent fridge, well stocked with cans of Red Bull. Opposite a leather design couch hangs an enormous television screen. A collection of green helmets, green water bottles, green jerseys from Peter’s time with Liquigas, his first professional team, cover the walls.

In the center of the room, spotlights illuminate five bicycles. Each shiny green specimen sits atop a pedestal. “This was his first bike as a pro, this one won him his first green jersey in the Tour.” Peter’s father doesn’t need convincing to tell these stories.

To the left of the bikes, there’s an impressive row of dozens of green glass trophies from the Tour de France. There’s one for every day Sagan was wearing the green jersey. He won the sprinter’s jersey from 2012-2016. This year he’s aiming to win his sixth in a row, which would be unprecedented. “First he has to win Paris-Roubaix,” says Lubomir. He is convinced his son will be able to pull it off and he believes his new team [Bora-hansgrohe from Germany] is a perfect fit. They’ve allowed him to bring his brother, his soigneurs, mechanics. “My son has found some peace and quiet in Monaco. And, in his heart,” says Lubomir.

Winning affirmation

“He has got to win, that need is very deep in him,” says Sagan’s older sister, Daniela, a timid woman in her thirties. She runs a successful hair salon, which was started with financial help from Peter. The salon is centrally-located in Zilina’s Mariánske Námestie square. In the basement there’s a large banner which reads: ‘Peter, You Are Our King’ – from the 2015 Tour de France. When Daniela talks about Peter she seems proud of what he has achieved. She attributes his winner mentality to being the youngest and the smallest in the family. “When playing board games or cards, he was always a fanatic. If he didn’t win, he would continue playing until he did,” she says.

That need has sometimes taken a maniacal form. Recently, Zanicky challenged his former pupil to a game of arm-wrestling in a Zilina bar. Peter so much wanted to win that he brought enough force to actually break Zanicky’s arm, according to his friend and manager Matej Vysna.

When Sagan was eleven, he took part in road races on the advice of his trainer, in addition to mountain biking. You can become great at those, Zanicky had told him. That’s true: compared to mountain biking, road races are what futsal is to football. But initially Sagan didn’t like long days on a bike. He found them tedious. He is a man of action, needs the adrenaline and above all hated peloton politics according to Zanicky. He liked the straightforward nature of mountain biking with its man-to-man and ‘may the best one win’ attitude. It’s not about tactics and he found his element in the muddy mountains. He ended up Junior European Champion and then World Champion.

Gradually, he took a liking to road races. With every win his love for the sport grew, although he often lost. As a junior he didn’t know how to balance his strengths, riding with his nose in the wind for days, ending up burnt-out in the last five kilometers. Milan Novosad coached Sagan until he joined a professional team in Italy at nineteen. He says Peter waits for his moment like a predator, followed by the ultimate reward, which was winning. “When he comes in second after a six-hour race, he always behaves decently in front of the cameras, but later, back in his hotel room, the door locks and even his wife Katarina won’t be able to reach him. He’ll emerge again later. Let’s just say a lot of energy is released. Peter can be like a small child,” says Zanicky.

Tourminator

In the Artforum library, in the heart of Zilina, brother Milan Sagan, who has a rounder face than Peter’s, but similar looks and the same ice blue eyes, recounts how his brother had to be independent at an early age. “When he turned sixteen he had to take care of himself. Our dad had arranged a house for Juraj and him. They had to do the cooking, the housekeeping. If they needed anything, Peter would take care of it. He believed there was no need to whine. Live in the present. Focus on the here and now, and let tomorrow take care of itself.” It’s this more relaxed side of Sagan that is sometimes invisible in competition, but which those who know him well also mention.

Scène from ‘Tourminator’, a satirical play about the life of Peter Sagan in Zilina. Milo Fabian

Michal Nemeth plays one of the main characters in ‘Tourminator’, a satirical play about Sagan’s life that’s been running for a number of years in the local theater. According to Nemeth, Sagan’s great strength is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Nemec: “That’s essential, because then you have energy left for the really important things. Ice hockey players in this country think they’re terribly important. Not Sagan, he’s able to laugh at himself. During the opening night we could hear where he was sitting in the audience. He laughed the loudest. Even if the jokes were pretty tough sometimes.”

Sagan during the final kilometres of the 2016 Tour of Flanders. ANP/Bas Czerwinski

The downside of fame

Zanicky always advised Sagan to compete in a world championship, but no one in his entourage prepared him for world fame – an aspect of his success that troubles the cyclist.
Zanicky: “Maybe Peter has two weeks of holiday a year. Apart from that he trains, competes in races and has sponsor duties. If there’s something Peter finds difficult, it’s the lack of time to spend with his family and friends.” Milan Sagan concurs: “There’s not a lot Peter needs in his life, but he does need time for himself. He doesn’t have that now.”
Sagan only lives in Zilina, in a detached house, for a couple of weeks a year, during the festive season. He avoids Slovakia because he can’t walk around freely.

Milan wouldn’t want to trade places with his little brother. “He’s rich, yes, but he’s constantly being pushed around. I think he’ll want to make up for lost time after he retires.” Friend and manager, Matej Vysna: “He can barely stand the outside pressure. Everywhere he goes, he’s followed by the media, by fans, hospitals wanting him to do charity events.”

In an interview with the Slovak newspaper Hospodárske Noviny, Sagan’s wife Katarina said that the greatest luxury for her husband would be to chop wood in the mountains once in a while, to be able to go fishing, light a fire. He rarely finds the time.

Sagan the politician?

Zanicky believes that’s the reason Sagan won’t have a long cycling career. “If something happens he doesn’t like, he’ll quit on the spot. You can’t take away Peter’s freedom. We still train together when he’s in Zilina, and then I see it as my job to keep him cheerful, to let him have some fun. We used to go and sit at a sidewalk café afterwards. Now he rushes in, rushes home. He doesn’t want to talk about cycling; he’d much rather talk about the risotto he’s going to cook, or the wine he’s going to drink with it.”

So what will he do after his cycling career? For mother Helena it’s clear. She wants Peter to return to Zilina and get his diploma. He was going to be an administrative assistant and only had to do two more years when he left for Italy to become a professional cyclist. Principal Maria Wienerova shrugs: “Sport is his profession. You can’t force someone to become a bookworm.”

If the Zilina town council had its way, Sagan will be entering local politics after his cycling career. Pavel Corba, the town’s spokesperson would be, “more than happy to have Peter on the council, regardless of his political convictions.” He’ll only have to stand for office, Corba claims, because he’s immensely popular. “He will surely be elected. He’s an example for our citizens. People want to be him. Sagan is the greatest success to ever come out of Zilina.”