Peter Sagan’s quiet finish

Few racers expressed more natural joy in the sport; can he find it again?

Peter Sagan on stage 1 of the Tour de France.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 23.07.2023 Photography by
Kristof Ramon
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Peter Sagan never won on the Champs-Élysées. The Slovakian speedster, winner of a record seven green jerseys at the Tour de France, was a fixture and force of the Grand Boucle for almost a decade, a threat on almost any type of stage at any point in the race. But the prestigious finish on Paris’ most famous boulevard always eluded him, and with his 11th place finish on Sunday, it always will.

Not that he sounded too upset about it.

“I’m so happy,” he told Eurosport at the finish. “So glad that this is the last one.”

The interviewer tried again: looking back at your remarkable career, what are you feeling right now?

“I’m tired.”

In that sense, it’s a fitting end for the Peter Sagan of 2023, who seems a much different man than the Sagan who debuted at the Tour in 2012 with three stage wins: blitzing Fabian Cancellara on a draggy Classics-style finish in Liege; blasting to an uphill win on the punchy seaside climb at Boulogne-sur-Mer; and bossing the best field sprinters on a chaotic day in Metz.

That Sagan was still quiet and mostly brief in interviews for sure, although much of that was a language barrier. But already in his victory celebrations – the Running Man, the Hulk – we saw signs of his playful personality. These days, Tadej Pogačar is the peloton’s social media superstar, but it wasn’t long ago that Sagan was blowing up the interwebs vamping in tributes to Grease and Rocky.

This year’s Tour route, from the opening stage to the last, would have been a bonanza for Peter Sagan circa 2012-2017. But this year’s Sagan is, well, tired. 

Not tired enough to sit out the sprint today, and not too tired to be entirely out of the action on other sprint stages. And he was more positive in a post-finish interview with The Breakaway, reminiscing about that first stage win in 2012, but the word “hard” was used a lot. Certainly the spark seems to have gone.

Earlier in the Tour, he told Het Laatste Nieuws, “I reached the breaking point three years ago. But then I was too good to quit. I would have been sorry. Now I am at peace with myself.” This Sagan is also blunt-spoken. “I know from experience and my past, it’s a lot of fun to win and achieve something. But ask anyone who has ridden the Tour more than 10 times if they still like it, and the answer will be ‘no,’” he told HLN. The ambivalence was etched on his face even at the team presentation in Bilbao: appreciation, but also angst.

His comments to HLN sound a little sour, but can you blame him? Since he went pro in 2010 and promptly shocked the world with two stage wins in Paris-Nice, Sagan has racked up 121 victories: 12 Tour stages to go with those seven green jerseys, dominating the points competition in every Tour he finished between 2012-2019. Three World Road Championships – in a row! Both cobble Monuments. Giro and Vuelta stages, and a host of other victories besides.

That’s a lot of wins, and Sagan is only 33 – five years younger than Mark Cavendish, who’s said to be thinking about another go – but there have been a lot of miles in 14 seasons of racing; over 100,000 race miles, in fact. Sagan has 58 race days already this year, and averaged almost 80 per season from 2012-2019.

In that long career, he’s also experienced a lot of life’s lesser moments. A marriage ended in divorce. He was (justifiably) slammed for sexually harassing a hostess on the Tour of Flanders podium in 2013. He got (unfairly, in my view) disqualified and vilified for Mark Cavendish’s crash in the 2017 Tour de France. He’s had tangles with the law and DUIs. Finally, he’s been through three bouts of COVID-19, including one, in the winter of 2021-2022, that left him with lingering long-COVID symptoms that took months to subside.

Is it any wonder all that took the edge off?

Sagan at the height of his power, en route to the win in Roubaix, 2018. Photo © Kramon

Sagan is right: he’s tired. He looks tired, sounds tired. The man needs a break and, quite honestly, I’m a little surprised he’s slated to race the World Championships. Maybe the early-August timeframe – well over a month earlier than normal years – and a race he’s always done well in provided an enticing endpoint for him.

Sagan is, we should note, not hanging up the wheels completely and he has a contract with TotalEnergies for 2024. But he doesn’t seem interested in racing on the road. Maybe it passed his mind as the final stage of the Tour took him deeper into the heart of Paris, but at this time next year, he may completely end his career at the Olympic mountain bike cross-country event, which he has said he wants to target in 2024.

You might recall Sagan also raced cross-country at the 2016 Games in Rio, where he ran as high as third in the early going before double-flatting out of contention. (True story: Sagan’s “Terminator” nickname arose from his junior mountain bike-racing days and refers to how hard he was on equipment.)

That athletic goal provides some tantalizing possibilities. If – big if – Sagan can retool his engine for the shorter, more-explosive efforts of XC mountain bike racing, he could absolutely be an outside medal threat; if you’ve ever watched a video of him mountain biking you know he has the technical skills. 

Perhaps gravel and mountain bike will provide opportunities for Sagan to find joy in bike racing again. Photo © Kramon

And if he chooses to race World Cup events in the runup, he might also not have to deal with a back-row start like he did in Rio. (Another aside: it might, possibly, maybe, be worth dealing with the IOC’s inane requirement to create an account just to watch the video of the opening laps from Rio, where Sagan rockets from the very back of a 50-rider field to the top 10 in just a lap and a half of the start circuit, which I submit remains one of the more underrated athletic feats of his career.)

More importantly, maybe a goal and focus of some kind that doesn’t involve months on the road in crappy hotels and long days in the peloton will re-ignite some of that old Peter Sagan spark. Whatever happens, I hope Sagan really is at peace with himself, and can find a lasting one, which has seemed elusive for him these past few years. That – more than an Olympic medal, or a win on the Champs, or even one final dig like Thibaut Pinot had yesterday – is a victory that Sagan, just like any of us, very much deserves. If he finds it on a bike, so much the better, but what is important is that he finds it.

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