Cycling can often mistakenly be seen as a cold, mechanical sport; modern riders obscured behind helmets which can visually make them seem like cyborgs; with the sort of intense training regimes which can only attract ultra-dedicated athletic drones.
But in Peter Sagan, lies cycling’s beating heart.
An infectious character who it’s almost impossible not to like on and off the bike and who is also one of the most successful sprinters of all time. And he’s still only 26.
“The rock star of cycling” is how the Wall Street Journal profiled him in the lead up to this year’s Tour de France where he won his fifth green jersey to move just one behind Erik Zabel’s all-time record of six.
Sagan is fast, unpredictable and eccentric. He drives a metallic grey classic 1970 Dodge Charger which wouldn’t look out of place in ‘Mad Max’ and alongside wife Katarina has re-enacted the final scene of ‘Grease’, lip-syncing to ‘You’re the One that I Want’.
He also competed at the Rio Olympics in the mountain bike race – denied a medal by a puncture – despite having not raced on the dirt for seven years. Why? Because he could.
It’s a rebellious streak, albeit one with charm, that makes him a bona fide superstar of a sport which has been criticised for its secrecy and skulduggery. Sagan’s a refreshing antidote to all that and comprehensively the most popular rider on tour among the masses.
He insists, however, despite the success and adoration, he remains just a humble bike rider from the town of Zilina in north west Slovakia who just wants to entertain.
“I don’t consider myself to be a superstar. I’m the same guy I was in January of 2010, on the start line of stage 1 of the Tour Down Under, my first ever professional race,” he tells Sport360.
“I like riding my bike and I try to make my fans happy. I think they deserve it because many times I meet people that have travelled hundreds or thousands of kilometres just to watch us racing on the road. So, I try to pay back their affection.”
On Sunday in Doha, he will attempt to become only the sixth man in 83 editions of the World Road Race Championships to defend his title. Sagan is aiming to follow in the tracks of Belgian trio Georges Ronsse (1928 and 1929), Rik Van Steenbergen (1956 and 1957), Rik van Looy (1960 and 1961) and Italian duo Gianni Bugno (1991 and 1992) and Paolo Bettini (2006 and 2007).
He claimed his first rainbow jersey in Richmond, Virginia a little over 12 months ago with a brilliantly-timed attack, breaking the cycle of so many near-misses and dispelling the myth he lacked the stamina over a long route, to compliment his sprinting power.
Because of who he is, his pedigree and sprinting ability on what will be a flat and fast course, the levels of expectation will be higher than ever on a defending champion.
“Although I would, obviously, like to defend my title, I don’t feel a burden,” he adds. “The race course is tricky this year, there are a number of unknowns and Slovakia will field a squad of just three riders, against strong nations such as France, Great Britain, Italy, Norway or the Netherlands, that go to Doha with nine riders.
“I might have matured as a person in the last 12 months but my philosophy in Doha will be exactly the same: Try to do your best and take the race as it comes.
“Winning the world championship requires a combination of many factors that have to come together. Unlike the Grand Tour where you have three weeks, at the Worlds you have one race to claim the title. If you don’t do a nearly perfect race it will be extremely difficult to succeed.”
The main challengers to Sagan’s crown include German trio Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel and John Degenklob, Mark Cavendish of Great Britain, Italian Olympic track gold medallist Elia Viviani and Rio road race champion Greg van Avermaet.
It is a stacked field, which unsurprisingly leads Sagan to deadpan: “There are many rivals and I will consider them all as serious.”
Victory would cap a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, took three stages at the Tour de France, led the points classification at the Enceco Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico as well as finished on top of the UCI WorldTour standings for the first time in his career and became European champion.
His highlight reel is extensive but when pushed to select a defending moment of the last 10 months, he admits pulling on the yellow jersey for the first time in Cherbourg after the second stage of this year’s Tour de France was extra special.
“It was the first time in my professional career and that’s where I realised how difficult it was to win it!” he says.
This year also marks his last racing for Tinkoff who signed him in 2015 to one of the most expensive contracts in cycling history but who are disbanding at the end of the season due to Tinkoff Bank ending their sponsorship and owner Oleg Tinkov, who has spent ¤60m (Dh242m) of his own money on the team, stepping away for personal reasons.
“Just like any other team in any other sport, we had our ups and downs but there is no doubt, my two years with Tinkoff were among the best of my professional career”, he adds. “It’s a pity Oleg Tinkov decided to pull the plug; 2017 could have been another very good season. However, I understand his decision and I’d like to thank him for the opportunity we were all given to be part of this great team.
“You know, he didn’t do this for the money, not as a business but because he has a true, deep passion for cycling.
“At the farewell dinner we had in Milan he said that if he had a time machine, he would go back, start all over and repeat everything. He doesn’t regret one single thing.”
Unfortunately, Sagan will not be competing at the Abu Dhabi Tour next week as a draining Olympic year which began with the Tour of San Luis in Argentina in mid-January means he is winding down with the season.
But perhaps he will be back next year in the colours of new employers Bora-Hansgrohe. The ambitious German outfit have signed Sagan to a three-year contract from next season, alongside Tinkoff colleagues Maciej Bodnar, Michael Kolar, Erik Baska, and brother Juraj.
“I think the German team will provide the best structure for me next year, in terms of infrastructure and support,” says Sagan, who was not short of offers. “I don’t like to set goals and make promises but I’m definitely sure Bora-Hansgrohe will be a robust team.”
Robust is certainly not an adjective you’d ever associate with Sagan.
Emirati riders need a shift in mentality in order to make the leap to the highest level in world cycling, according to Mansoor Busaiba, the general manager of Skydive Dubai Pro Cycling Team – Al Ahli Club.
Skydive Dubai became the first Emirati team to compete at the Road World Championships when they lined up for the Team Time Trial in Doha on Sunday and Busaiba believes it was a significant milestone that can give a boost to UAE cycling.
Receiving a wildcard invitation from the World Championships was a nod of recognition of the team’s efforts since they launched at the start of 2014 and despite placing 15th out of 17 outfits in the time trial on Sunday, Busaiba feels Skydive Dubai’s participation was a success in more than one respect.
“This is the first time an Emirati team takes part in the World Championships. It’s a big motivational boost for Emirati riders. It will give them a push to put in more effort in training,” Busaiba told Sport360.
“Getting exposure like this, with the world’s best teams, can perhaps lead to a shift in mentality. UAE riders can stop thinking ‘I am an amateur rider’ and start thinking ‘I’m a professional rider’. It’s a big jump. Once we reach that stage of professional mentality, then our riders can really make the leap to the world level and can compete in the Grand Tours. It really comes down to our mentality.”
Skydive competed with six riders in Doha, led by Francisco Mancebo, a Spanish veteran who made the GC podium twice at the Vuelta a Espana and finished fourth in the 2005 Tour de France.
Mancebo was joined by UAE rider Tariq Obaid, Moroccan duo Adil Jelloul and Soufiane Haddi, Italian rider Andrea Palini and Ukrainian Marlen Zmorka.
While Obaid and Haddi did not make it to the finish line with their team-mates, Mancebo is pleased with his side’s performance in the Qatari capital.
“For me I felt good today in the time trial, we rode well, all six riders. The team rode so strong,” said the 40-year-old Mancebo.
“Too much time without competition and that was a problem for us but we are very happy.”
Indeed the team’s participations have been sporadic this season, with the main highlights being Haddi grabbing the young riders’ white jersey at the Dubai Tour last February, Palini and Jelloul taking stage wins at the La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon, Mancebo winning the fifth stage at the 2.1 category Tour of Alberta, and most recently Haddi claiming stage two of the Tour de Côte d’Ivoire.
“The UCI has thankfully recognised the efforts of Skydive Dubai over the past season. We started the season ranked at the top of the Asian Tour but due to the lack of participation since April until now, that forced us to slip in the rankings,” explained Busaiba.
“It was due to reasons that I don’t really want to discuss, because it is related to our sponsors and investors.”
Still, despite the lack of appearances in recent months, Mancebo insists the team’s reputation has grown over the past three seasons and they are now a recognised outfit in the peloton.
For the Emirati riders on the roster, Busaiba admits there are certain struggles faced when it comes to their development.
“I always tell our riders to look up to Mancebo and see how he leads his life. Being a professional rider requires sacrifices,” said Busaiba.
“All Emirati riders on my team have day jobs. And that’s a big problem. We do not have athletes who are 100 per cent professionals. Our athletes think ‘what will my future be like if I quit my day job and dedicate myself to sport?’
“Governmental jobs here secures their career and their future, they offer pensions and so many other benefits. Whereas cyclists here, if they get injured or are forced to quit the sport for any reason, what will they get?
“So we try to collaborate with the governmental entities here and I must say they do their best to accommodate us.”
Skydive Dubai were snubbed by the Abu Dhabi Tour organisers which means their next outing will be the Sharjah International Cycling Tour, that starts on October 25.
Busaiba remains mystified by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s decision not invite Skydive Dubai for this month’s Abu Dhabi Tour. ADSC secretary general had told Sport360 that they could only invite one local team, and they are giving priority to the UAE Cycling Federation and Nasr-Dubai, however Busaiba noted that last year there were two Emirati outfits taking part in the Abu Dhabi Tour.
“Why are they trying to keep our spirits down like that, when we are receiving invitations from 2.HC races in China – the same category as the Abu Dhabi Tour – but we’re getting rejected inside our own country? Abu Dhabi Sports Council unfortunately is rejecting us. This is very strange. Everyone keeps asking us, our sponsors, ‘why are you not competing in the Abu Dhabi Tour’? It’s not up to us,” said Busaiba.
“Last year there were two teams from the UAE, one from the federation, and our team. So why not the same this time?”
Participants have 30 minutes to post their fastest lap and be crowned king or queen of the Yas Marina Circuit track.
The first Abu Dhabi Tour Challenge took place on October 9, but there are two more on October 11 and 18 at Yas Marina Circuit as part of the promotional tour of the Abu Dhabi Tour of cycling, which takes place in the UAE between October 20 and 23.
Video by: DubaiBlog