“How did you ever race in these things?” Peter Sagan joked with cycling legend Freddy Maertens as he looked a one of Maertens’ original wool rainbow-stripped jerseys from the 1970s. “Well this one is in good shape!” he laughed back. “You should have seen them when it rained. They sagged down to your knees!” Instantly the tone was set for a gentle conversation between two of the sport’s greatest champions.
Together Peter Sagan and Freddy Maertens have won no less than five rainbow jerseys, 10 green points jerseys at the Tour de France, and nearly 300 races. Sagan is often introduced at races today as the “rockstar of the peloton,” but back in the 1970s and 80s Maertens had plenty of rockstar status himself. And he is still one of the top ten winningest cyclists in the history of the sport with 148 career wins.
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But aside from their immense list of achievements, the two champions share a sincere friendship, as these two legendary road sprinters have a similar view on bike racing. VeloNews got together with the two just days before the Ronde van Vlaanderen. We met with them their friendship in images, but also to get a glimpse of their wonderful bond, as the two met and chatted easily about the art of sprinting, winning the rainbow jersey, not to mention the Tour of Flanders without fans and the long wait for Paris-Roubaix.
It was fascinating to watch the two interact really. Maertens — often gregarious — was reserved, only too happy to hear Sagan’s perspective. And Sagan — sometimes reserved in interviews — was particularly effusive. In some ways, Maertens was the muse, but what he did say clearly resounded with Sagan, who was only too happy to expound.
Freddy Maertens: You look good and you had a nice race in the Catalunya (i.e. Sagan won a stage).
Peter Sagan: Well it was a difficult start of the season because I tested positive for COVID at a training camp in the Grand Canary Islands in February. But since then, I did Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo, and Catalunya. I am coming here with almost a grand tour behind me. So we will see.
FM: He’s my favorite. (ed., looking to VeloNews) Since you have turned professional, I have been a Peter Sagan fan.
PS: Thank you! Thank you very much. That is nice to hear!
VeloNews: Freddy, when I visited with you in January, I asked what riders have impressed you the most since you stopped racing, and you immediately said Peter. Why?
FM: Well as they say in Italian, Peter is “furbo,” crafty.
PS: Me? Haha!
FM: Yes you. Exactly! You are very smart! When you have good legs, you don’t show it to the others.
PS: Well that has not always been the case! I have lost plenty of races because I showed everyone that I was the strongest. I have already lost two Milano-Sanremo races because I showed how good I was too early. And even this year, ok I wasn’t the strongest, but I got fourth. Sanremo is always like that. I am often right there, but winning it is a different story.
VN: Peter, when Freddy told me you two were friends, I told him it would be great to get you together. How did you two meet?
PS: At the races really. We started to chat. And then I heard so many Freddy stories. I mean you still hold the record for the most grand tour stage victories. That’s incredible! (ed., actually, Eddy Merckx holds the record with 64, but Maertens won 28 grand tour stages in 1976 and 1977 alone.) There are just so many stories with Freddy, and not just on the bike. Like that near escape from an airplane crash.
He was on an airplane flight to the United States. You got off in New York, but the plane continued to Chicago and crashed. It was the worst air disaster (ed., American Airlines Flight 191) until September 11 I believe. When you think about it, well, that is was just crazy!
FM: Yeah, that’s a crazy story, really crazy! I’ll never forget the day after I got off and when I heard that the same plane had crashed. I remember thinking, “Wow, I could have been on that plane!” Life is so fragile and fate and chance can play such a role. But it was on my side that day.
VN: You two were are some of the greatest sprinters in the history of your sport. In your opinion, what is the key ingredient to a great sprinter?
FM: Well firstly I would say timing, knowing just when to jump. You have to time your sprint perfectly because if you jump too early you will get passed at the line, and if you jump too late you won’t have time to come around the front guy. The other thing that is key is really studying the road book. You have to know the last kilometer and you have to know the final turn so that you can be on the outside of the final turn. If you are on the inside, almost always you lose.
PS: You know that is interesting because I think cycling is actually returning back to what you describe. For many years with sprinters like Mario Cipollini or Alessandro Petacchi, it was all about the big leadout train. And when you have a train like they did, well, positioning is not so important. But today, there is no train anymore. The best sprinters have one or two guys leading them out, so I think that sprinting is actually more like it was before, more like what you describe Freddy. Today we are more just back to pure sprinting.
And I have to say that for myself, I have never had that kind of a train. I always sprinted with my own strength and intuition. And I have always really had to study the last kilometers to know where are the roundabouts are situated. It’s interesting but today, with all of the technology, with radios and Google maps, we are getting so much information to help us anticipate things in the final. But at the same time, you have to be good at moving in the bunch, to find the little openings, etc. You always have to have bike handling skills.
VN: Okay, here is a question I cannot ask many people. Between you two, you have five world champion jerseys. I remember talking with Tom Boonen before the worlds in 2016 when he was one of the big favorites. And he said to me that winning the world championships once taught him just how hard it was to do. Everything must go perfectly for you that day. Freddy, you had two perfect days, and Peter you had three perfect days. What is the secret?
FM: The secret is firstly training…
PS: Yeah you have to have great condition, but you have to have lots of luck also. What Tom says about everything going perfectly, I agree. For instance, when the worlds was in England two years ago, I was in tremendous condition. I felt much better than when I won in Qatar (ed. 2016) or in Norway (ed. 2017). When I won in Norway, I wasn’t the best. I got dropped on the last climb, and just got into position in the last kilometer. And in Qatar, I got a little lucky because I was near the barrier in the sprint, and a little gap opened up perfectly. But 10 centimeters closer to the barrier and I would have been boxed in.
I really wanted to win that one in England and I really, really trained hard. I came to the race in great condition. My condition was perfect. But then we had such bad weather conditions. I don’t really have a team at worlds because Slovakia is a small country, but a lot of big teams had bad luck too. Philippe Gilbert crashed on the Belgian team. The Dutch team had van der Poel in the breakaway, but then he had cramps. There were a lot of good riders in the front, however, a lot of the big, big favorites were still with me. But everybody was just freezing. Personally, I felt good, and it was easy for me to go when I attacked, but by the time I realized that the other big favorites didn’t have it that day, it was too late. I just did not have enough time to make up the gap. So yeah everything has to fall into place just right. For sure you have to have very good condition. But each worlds has a set of circumstances. And you have to luck!
VN: Freddy, which one of Peter’s world championships impressed you the most?
FM: Oh Norway. It was crazy because there was a blackout on television right in the final. It appeared that Peter was dropped and it was only when the finish-line camera focused on them that I saw Peter coming out of the last corner perfectly. It was like he came out of nowhere!
VN: Freddy, You are one of the all-time great Flemish riders. We always say that the Tour of Flanders is the world championships for the Flemish riders. Could you ever have imagined the Ronde van Vlaanderen with no fans?
FM: Oh no, but that is just the way it is with this Coronavirus. It’s a serious problem. But at least they [could] race. It could be canceled like Paris-Roubaix.
PS: Even I can tell you that for as long as I have raced, Flanders it is like the world championships when it comes to the fans. They are just so intense here. It is even more intense than Paris-Roubaix because we finish on this big circuit and it is just packed with fans. Also in Paris-Roubaix it is flat so you are just flying over the cobbles, but here when you are on the climbs you are only going 15-20 kilometers an hour and you can really feel the fans. You can see them. There are pushing each other. They are screaming. It is crazy! So yeah it is very strange not to race with fans in Flanders.
VN: Well, as Freddy says, at least they are able to have the race. Next, there will be no Roubaix for the second year in a row. I mean only the World Wars have ever gotten in the way of Roubaix.
PS: Well in a way we are at “World War” again, although it is different, too. Everything is so stressful now. Traveling, scheduling the races, planning anything is so difficult now. You can’t plan anything today and everybody is really sick of it. And when it comes to Roubaix, well, sure, October 3 is not a bad date. It is just after the world championships so that is good. But many of us have sacrificed three or four months of our lives planning and training for Roubaix, only to find out now that it is going to be in October.
Again, the October date is not a bad date, and I will surely be motivated. It will come just one week after the world championships so I will be really motivated to do both. But still, it is disappointing to sacrifice so much, to train so hard, and then to see all of the work we have just done to just go up in flames. And the worst part is that we still really do not know just how long it is going to last this virus.
VN: Peter you have won over 100 races, and there will be more. But as your manager Ralph Denk said in the German press last week, you are entering the ‘autumn’ of your career. Freddy, what advice can you give Peter for finishing out the career.
FM: Well you have to work and train as hard as you always did, all the way until the day you do stop. You can’t let up. And I wish you all of the best luck!
PS: Oh thank you very much, Freddy! When did you stop? How old were you?
FM: Hmm that is a good question. I stopped in 1987. I think I was 38.
PS: Oh well, I still have some time then. That means I still have seven years to race!
We would like to thank the Koers Museum in Roeselare for loaning us the two authentic world champion jerseys for the photoshoot. If you are ever in Flanders please stop by the museum and take in its magnificent collection.