It may be puzzling to the youths in cycling fandom who don’t remember triple-World Champion-era Peter Sagan, but for those of us who do recall those heady years of Grease videos, all-time victory celebrations, and of course a boatload of green jerseys, his quiet departure from road racing this year definitely held mixed feelings. Happy for the memories, but a bit sad at the muted goodbye, and a touch concerned that Sagan looked, well, miserable in his last couple of years in the peloton.
What might turn that around? Well, mountain bike racing, maybe. “I started with mountain biking, I want to finish with mountain biking, and I finally want to enjoy something in cycling,” Sagan told GCN at the Singapore Criterium recently. While he added that he wanted “not just to be focused on big priorities,” he’s got one in mind: representing Slovakia in the mountain bike XC at the Paris Olympics.
He’s done it once, at Rio in 2016. But to get back is going to be a massive challenge. “It’s going to be very difficult and a very hard way until Paris,” Sagan acknowledged. “But I always say it is not impossible and I have to think positive.”
Absolutely the right attitude. But wait, is it possible?
Only just, but the math is maybe even more daunting than Sagan’s “very difficult” comment might suggest. Let’s break it down.
A very exclusive club
There are just 34 start spots for the Olympic XCO men’s field. Start spots are awarded by nation, not rider. The top eight countries in the UCI rankings qualify two athletes each; countries ranked 9-19 get one start spot each. A max of three more spots can go to nations that win their region’s Continental Championships, but there’s a catch: that doesn’t apply to the European CC event, only Africa, America, and Asia. (Four final spots go to the highest-ranking countries in the elite and U23 categories at the 2023 Worlds that didn’t otherwise qualify.)
Neither the Euro CC wildcard nor 2023 Worlds options are available to Sagan. Which leaves him with the task of somehow getting Slovakia into the top 19 nations in the UCI rankings. Two more wrinkles there: the rankings are a two-year cycle that began in May 2022, leaving Sagan and Slovakia with a LOT of catching up to do. And, the cutoff is May 26, 2024 (the date of the Novē Mêsto World Cup). Which means he has six months to do two years of work.
OK, so where is Slovakia in the UCI nations rankings? News isn’t great there, either: they’re 34th in the elite men’s standings right now, meaning Sagan (assisted by Slovakia’s other elite men’s XC racers: Matej Ulík, Martin Hrtánek, and Jakub Jenčuš) have to jump 15 teams. At this moment, Slovakia, at 1,396 points, is more than 1,600 points out of the 19th spot in the rankings, held by Chile.
The good news? The nations between Slovakia and that 19th spot aren’t exactly mountain bike powerhouses themselves; a concerted effort by Sagan should see Slovakia quickly jump up the rankings. The question is whether he runs out of races and time by the deadline. And, even though it’s a 700-point drop from Chile to the 20th-ranked team, Latvia, those other countries aren’t sitting still and will also be chasing points between now and May 26, often at the same events. One last thing? According to the rules, the rankings will only count the three highest-scoring riders in a country; Sagan has to score 312 points just to pass Martin Haring in Slovakia’s count, which means he/Slovakia really needs to score somewhere around 1,900 points. (I say “according to the rules” because, right now, the rankings list more than three riders for some countries.)
The first question is whether there even are 1,900 points out there between now and May 26. I am pleased to report, dear reader, that Sagan’s quest is in fact mathematically possible. But only just, and paradoxically, his best chance might be avoiding some of the highest-profile, high-point events. Not only that, but Sagan can’t do this alone; he’ll need Slovakia’s other top XC racers to do everything they can to boost the country’s point total as well. That’s a lot to ask of riders who don’t stand to get much personal benefit from the effort, so that kind of coordination might only happen if Sagan can help finance it.
World Cup XCOs offer 250 points to the winner and even 100 to the ninth-place finisher. But fields are massive (and Sagan will start in the back), competition is fierce, and there are only three rounds on the calendar before the May 26 cutoff. So sure, send someone to the World Cups, but the smartest choice might be to chase Hors Classe and Classe 1 events, which offer 100 and 50 points, respectively, to the winner. Sagan will still face other points-chasing riders at those events, but not the depth of field he will at World Cups. So bust out the bike case and dust off that Star Alliance lounge pass, Peter, because here’s your itinerary:
Sagan’s path to Paris
January 21-February 18 – XCO Cups Alicante and Elda, Internacionales Chelva
The Mediterranean coastal city of Alicante, Spain is a pretty familiar January spot for Sagan, but there are no chill base miles and bonding at team camps here, just a pair of C1 races and an HC where Sagan can mop up on lower-level competition.
Max points: 200 total
*Note: For max points here, I’m using only the points available to the winner of any event/s. A team approach could yield higher totals from multiple podium placings.
February 24-25 – Shimano Supercup Massi Banyoles
Stick around Spain for this HC race to wrap up a solid Spanish start to the campaign.
Max points: 100
March 8-10 – Desafio dos Gigantes XCO
Off to Brazil for this pair of C1 events and a chance to maybe preview the track for next month’s World Cup at Mairipora.
Max points: 100 (meanwhile, other Slovakian racers target a trio of C2 races in Spain, for a max of 90 more points)
March 16-March 31 – Italy and Serbia
Back to Europe for a quartet of C1 races starting with the Pineta Sperane at Lake Garda and then three of Serbia’s Epic series. (An alternate approach sees him skip the second round of the Epic series for the Swiss Bike Cup, an HC event with more points but possibly more competition. Another Slovakian racer can enter the March 16 French Cup round at Marseille and the Epic second round in search of a max 150 points.)
Max points: 200-350 across all events
Mid-mid-season update: hopefully, Sagan and Slovakia have already picked up 600+ points in a string of high placings between its top riders.
April 5-6 – Marlene Sudtirol Sunshine Race
A brief return to Italy for a Tyrolean idyll at this HC race. If April weather in the Dolomites conspires against a race, an alternate itinerary is a last-minute pond hop for the US Pro Cup at Bentonville, Arkansas, also an HC race and surely a sponsor-pleasing appearance for Specialized. If Slovakia is taking a team approach, then the best option is to split up and target both. A third rider could head to Portugal for the C1 Abrantes race.
Max points: 250 across all events
April 12-28 – A choice: back to Brazil or stay Euro-side
It’s World Cup time in Brazil as the series visits South America for two early rounds on back to back weekends. On one hand: beaucoup des points. On the other, beaucoup des competitors. The smart choice for Slovakia is to split its team between these events and some concurrent European races: Austria’s Ötztaler Festival, an HC event, and their home-country XCO Drozdovo (a C1) the weekend after, followed up with a late-April visit to the International MTB Bundesliga round in Heubach, Germany, another HC race.
Max points World Cups: 500 (but unlikely)
Max points Euro itinerary: 250 (a lot more manageable)
May 5 – Ökk Bike Revolution
Back to Switzerland for a quick HC jolt in Chur, plus one rider gets exiled to Elba for the C1 Capoliveri Legend event.
Max points: 150
May 8-12 – European Continental Championships
As with World Cups, the chances of scoring big here are smaller because of the field quality. But there are no other competing races this weekend where Sagan is eligible, so might as well schlep to Cheile Gradistei, Romania in search of experience banging bars with the best and a chance to get a decent result.
Max points: 150
May 18-19 – Some combo of C1 races in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland
It’s getting down to the wire here, and with just two weekends left Sagan is in a sprint. He can’t do all three of these races but with some kick-ass logistics he might get two. We’d pick Poland and the Czech Republic. If anyone wants an American trip, a jaunt over to Wisconsin’s C1 Englewood Open offers a max of 50 points. Bonus: cheese curds!
Max points: 150
May 26 – Nové Mēsto World Cup
Last chance saloon for Pistol Pete. If he’s done his work, Nové Mēsto is mostly a chance to get stuck in against truly elite global competition, which other than Euro Champs this itinerary hasn’t had much of. But it’s also a chance for a head-turning result and to move up just a little more in the start grid for Paris.
Max points: 250
Total max points: 2,040-2,540 (depending on Brazil World Cup rounds)
Again, this is mathematically possible. But only just, and only by essentially going on a multi-continent bender of a streak of results that lasts four months. If Sagan gets there, he’s going to need a heck of a break before Paris. But it’ll be fascinating following to see if he can get to the start line for the Games.
Thanks to CeramicSpeed’s Mike Garrigan for some analysis and pointers on rankings and strategy.
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