On the Champs-Élysées, groups of photographers and videographers and reporters and hosts clamor around the men of the moment, asking for their final thoughts, sticking microphones in their faces one last time. Handshakes, high fives, champagne. And off to the side, Peter Sagan, ending his final Tour de France, standing with his friend Daniel Oss and a couple of other teammates and no media. No scrum. Other riders nod as they ride past, particularly the older ones. Somebody hands him a cigar. He smiles.
How quickly we move on. If you started following this sport only in the last few years – since the pandemic, perhaps – you may wonder what all the Peter Sagan fuss is about. Why do we care so much about this clearly troubled man, on his second criminal charge related to alcohol, plodding about France barely cracking the top 10 in Tour stages.
As of today, Peter Sagan has 1.9 million Instagram followers. Mathieu van der Poel? Barely half that. Wout van Aert, same. Tadej Pogačar, social media darling, man of Borat reels, has 1.2 million. One small indication of just what Peter Sagan once was, because you can hardly tell now.
Time, and sport, wait for no man.
Yet here I am, three weeks after the Champs, cueing up the short track mountain bike race from the World Championships in Scotland, keeping an eye on the man starting last row, unseeded because he has no UCI points, in some sort of vain hope that he’ll replicate one of the most astonishing feats I’ve seen in cycling.
In Rio in 2016, Sagan also started last row, 50th out of 50 called up. A minute later, he was in the top 10. Thirty seconds later, third, right on the wheel of eventual winner Nino Schurter. He did it with an ease that belied its impossibility. A last-row call-up should doom any contender, requiring incredible effort just to get into the meat of the race before actually racing it; Sagan didn’t even seem to notice.
He was at the peak of his powers, then. Reigning road race world champion, with two more to come, five-time winner of the Tour de France’s green jersey, also with two more to come. He won the Tour of Flanders that spring and would win Roubaix two years later. He had half of his 12 Tour de France stage wins in the bag. He was re-making Grease clips and wandering around in leather jackets and Specialized was making sure he was the best-paid racer in the world by some margin. He was a superstar with long hair and a Joker tattoo that asked the world why it was so serious. He wasn’t serious, and look how well it was working for him.
He said quirky things in interviews, mostly by accident. He was portrayed as some kind of bad boy, perhaps fed by his doing incredibly dumb and genuinely bad things like pretending to pinch a podium hostess, but he mostly seemed uncomfortable with the media. “Race is race,” he once said, breaking down the day in his own somewhat-endearing form of English. “Was like was.”
My (vain) hope ahead of the Worlds short track stems from something we’ve heard for years: that mountain bike racing is his real passion. He raced road because he was exceptional at it, those close to him said, and because for years winning seemed to come easy and he was rewarded, financially and otherwise, for doing incredible things on cycling’s biggest stage. But in his offseason, he’d head to Lake Tahoe or Utah and break out his mountain bike. We’d see videos of him doing drops and railing berms and smiling like we rarely saw him smile with drop bars between his hands.
He wants to race the cross country at next summer’s Paris Olympics. He has unfinished business. After that incredible first lap in Rio, he hit a rock and flatted out of the leading trio, just after the tech zone. He rode most of the subsequent lap on a front flat. Returning to the front was impossible, even for him; his race for a gold medal was over.
Sagan’s last prolific season was 2019. He didn’t cope well with lockdowns. He was arrested and fined over €5,000 for breaking Monaco’s COVID lockdown curfew and flailing wildly as he was apprehended, hitting an officer, because he feared he would be forced to be vaccinated, according to his lawyers. He was also allegedly quite drunk.
He’s been hit again with charges related to drinking. Most recently he was pulled over on a scooter at 11:35 in the morning, Breathalyzed, and found to have a blood alcohol content of 1.45 mg/l. Six times the legal limit in Monaco. Before lunch.
I’ve spoken with a few riders who know him, all of whom asked not to be named, and all of whom described him with some version of having spent a few years “not in a good place.” A man lost, without purpose. He almost quit entirely in 2020, according to a Sporza interview I can no longer find, but continued on.
And so, I turned the short track on. A last-row start for Sagan. No big, wide start loop like Rio, only 20 minutes to make his mark on a narrow, fast course, making the task even more impossible than last time. The gun went off. He moved up a bit. Thirtieth or so. Then slipped back. By the finish, he was 37th, just over a minute back. Not lapped, but only a few places ahead of those who were. No Rio fairytale here.
I think anybody who followed pro cycling through the Sagan years doesn’t wish for this version of an ending. Fading quietly, little fanfare at his final Tour, a quiet World Championships. There is a part of me that hopes the poor results of the last few years are a symptom of his falling completely out of love with road racing. A symptom, perhaps, of having done everything he could realistically do in the discipline. A symptom of doing it for the paycheck, partying too much, losing his way, and coasting on his immense but unquestionably waning talent.
If this theory is even partially correct, then the hope is that with road racing done, and a full focus on his first love, we see an end to Sagan’s career that the sport deserves.
He posted on Instagram after the short track. He’s smiling. “So Pete, a few words after the race,” the man behind the camera says. “Excited. But also a little bit frightened,” Sagan responds, laughing. The effort isn’t what he’s used to, he says. Full gas the whole time. “It’s a new kind of effort I will have to train for,” the caption reads.
“But it was fun,” he says before the video ends.
Sagan is probably not winning a medal in Glasgow or Paris. Not with Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock and the whole slew of cross-country specialists there. But perhaps mountain bikes and an Olympic dream might see him get his shit together. Is it so wrong to want to see the Peter Sagan we remember one more time?
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