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VeloNews Awards 2018: Peter Sagan, cyclist of the year

Peter Sagan's sterling 2018 season was highlighted by victory in Paris-Roubaix. Here's the inside story of how he won a cobblestone.

Gent-Wevelgem. Paris-Roubaix. Three stages of the Tour de France and a record-tying sixth green jersey. Peter Sagan enjoyed a banner year in 2018, taking major victories from January until July. Was it his best year yet? Perhaps. In any case, it was enough to earn VeloNews’s Cyclist of the Year Award. To celebrate his season, and to take you inside Sagan’s thrilling victory in Roubaix, we present an excerpt from his new book, “Sagan: My World.

Have you ever sat in a jacuzzi on full gas, and then the bubbles stop and it all settles down? God, I love that moment.
That is the moment when you leave a pavé secteur and regain tarmac. It feels like an all-encompassing calm. The horizon goes from a lie detector graph going crazy to a thick, smooth, swish of the Sharpie in an instant. But there’s another one coming.

The front of the race splinters and re-forms a bewildering number of times over the coming sections. Zdenek Stybar, Oliver Naesen, Sep Vanmarcke, John Degenkolb, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard, Jasper Stuyven, Niki Terpstra, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Tony Martin are all here, plus me, Daniel Oss, and Marcus Burghardt flying the Bora-Hansgrohe flag — and still three members of the original break hang on a few seconds in front of us. This is the race, right here. Tony Martin attacks and is caught. Daniel attacks and is caught. Niki attacks and is caught. Greg launches a really hard one that stretches everybody out … and is caught. Now it will calm down. I drift through to the front as Greg drifts back along the line, watching his chasers as they watch him. I take five meters. Ten. Twenty meters. Then I give it everything I have.

After five minutes of concerted riding I catch the three guys that have been away all day. Fair play to them. We’ve got 50 kilometers to go, so they’ve been out here for the best part of 200 on their own. I’m not really that familiar with them: there’s the Swiss champ Silvan Dillier who I know is no slouch, Sven Erik Bystrøm, and a strong Flemish guy from Lotto, Jelle Wallays. I decide to work as hard as I can, treating it like a lone attack, and accepting some respite from them when they’re able.

Bystrøm is cooked from his effort and falls away as the pace rises, but the three of us are all going okay. When I caught them, we were about 20 seconds off the front of the bunch. Now, despite these two guys being out here since virtually first thing this morning, they stay with me through the horribly screwed up long section of utterly useless cobbles at Mons-en-Pévèle, and we eke out a gap to 48 seconds. Come on, Peter. This is your shot.

Sagan

We come off the next section of cobbles and I can immediately feel something is wrong. I look down. Shit. My stem and handlebars are pointing north-west and my bike is going north. They are out by about 30 degrees. If they’re stuck there and won’t budge, then I can factor that in and deal with it. But that’s unlikely. What’s likely is my stem bolt has shaken loose and the whole assembly has swung left. Come the next sector, they could do a complete 180 and I’ll be somersaulting over them into a Napoleonic road and my own ignominious defeat. Shit, shit, shit.

I can’t let anyone know. If word gets back to the chasers, it’ll be just the boost they need. If these two realize, they’ll either drop me or give up. Neither looks good. But I won’t be able to chase, to corner, to stand up, to sprint … What to do?

I wonder how loose it is. Maybe I can nudge it straight? Impossible with no way of holding the wheel straight though: I give the handlebar a smack and everything just jogs. Pointless. Wait — what if I could wedge my wheel up against something? As we rotate through our paceline, Dillier comes through to lead. I drift back to Wallays’ wheel. I let my front tire ride close so it actually overlaps his back wheel on his left.

“Godverdomme!” yells the Lotto guy in the most useful, time-honored swear word in the Flemish cycling bible.

“Oh, sorry, sorry, lost it for a moment, sorry,” I apologize.

He shrugs. It happens. I’m the world champion, I must have at least a vague notion of what I’m doing, worse things happen every minute of every race.

It didn’t work. I pull through again to the front. We really are going to be on cobbles again soon. This can’t be how I lose Paris-Roubaix. I know what I did wrong. I didn’t tap him hard enough, obviously. Two or three quick hard blows. That’ll do it.

I sidle up behind his Ridley again. Deep breath, Peter. This is it. One … two …

Bang! Bang! Bang!

“What the f—k, Sagan? What are you f—king doing?”

“Oh man, sorry, just tired, sorry, it’s okay.”

There’s no friendly shrug this time, just a stream of under-his-breath invective and total confusion. Poor guy; 200 kilometers at the front of the world’s biggest one-day bike race and now some idiot is pranking him. This is a man at the end of his tether.

At that very moment my guardian angels appear alongside me in the Bora-Hansgrohe team car. I could have leaned in and kissed them. The lengthy tarmac stretch had enabled Ján Valach and Enrico Poitschke to rally-drive past the chasers and get up to the front.

“Got a four-millimeter Allen key, Ján?”

Everyone loves a four. It’s the one you get free with Ikea furniture. A minute later and we are back in the game.

Sagan

Half an hour remaining. Seven cobble sections to go. Greg and Terpstra are slowly closing. Time to burn some more matches. I tear through the Cysoing section and our lead holds at 50 seconds, but not for Wallays, who can’t go with this pace. Poor guy. Humiliated, teased, and dropped. I will apologize.

Dillier is riding amazingly well. I keep expecting him to sit on, but he keeps on coming through and giving me little turns. The best thing about this guy is that he thinks he can win this. And the worst thing about this guy is that he thinks he can win this. Do not underestimate this man, Peto. He’s on a special day.

I heard somewhere once that Sean Kelly blew what most thought would be the first of many Tour of Flanders wins by confidently leading out the sprint from the small group he had shaped, prepared his victory salute, only to see Adri van der Poel’s lanky Dutch nose peek round him and snatch a great win. Kelly’s lesson? “It doesn’t matter how good a day you’re on — always remember there might be somebody else on just as good a day who is cleverer than you.” I couldn’t let Silvan Dillier be my Adri van der Poel.

My biggest effort. Like a pursuit rider on the track, timing it to not blow up, but not wanting to hold anything back. I come out of the worst section of pavé of Paris-Roubaix to find Silvan panting like an overworked greyhound but still clinging on. The race officials tell us Terpstra, Van Avermaet, Stuyven, and Vanmarcke are a minute behind. It’s just us. This really is it now.

With two sections remaining they peg us back to 46 seconds. Dillier is spent as a weapon but still there as a companion.

Go deeper, Peter. Think. Think of all those races your dad drove you to all over Europe. Think of Juraj’s posters of Ullrich and Pantani. Think of Giovanni having to ride around Lake Tahoe. Think of those Slovakian flags in Doha. Think of Gabriele marshaling the media. Think of Marlon’s little hands. Go deeper.

Fifty-one seconds.

Fifty-four seconds.

Fifty-nine seconds.

We’re on the long avenue that tracks up the outskirts of Lille into Roubaix. The velodrome is up there on the right. This is it. I’ve been here before, but not to win it. How is Dillier thinking of winning? It doesn’t matter. Just do it right and you will win, Peter. Do it wrong and he will win. It’s in your hands, not his.

Sagan

He leads into the velodrome and hugs the top of the track, ducking under the spectator’s flags, correctly showing me only one way past. Hold. Hold. We have a lap and a half of the old track to complete. We take the bell still on the outside of the track, not as slow as fixed-gear cat-and-mouse Olympians, but not racing anymore. His neck is permanently clicked left, watching me and the track in front. Two more bends. Hold. Hold. Two hundred and fifty meters. Hold. One more bend. Hold, Peter!

Two hundred meters. One hundred and fifty meters. One hundred meters. Now!

I dart down across the track and Dillier flicks across to go for my slipstream, but I have left it late enough that there is no time for him to catch and overtake me.

I win Paris-Roubaix.