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If your response to yesterday’s news that Peter Sagan may join Astana was to immediately slam your laptop shut and pretend you didn’t actually read that, you’re not alone.
Sagan and Astana sit at opposite ends of cycling’s “fun” spectrum, and paring them would be like making Justin Timberlake work for Enron. Don’t believe me? Observe:
Sagan is best known for 1.) being the most exciting cyclist of this generation due to his ability to win bunch sprints, cobbled classics, and hilly one-day races, and 2.) for his mainstream appeal due to his penchant for wheelies, jaw-dropping YouTube videos, and yes, his flowing man mane (sometimes a man bun).
Sure, I realize there are practical reasons behind the potential marriage. Astana needs to boost its results in order to keep that oil money flowing into its account. Fabio Aru’s Vuelta win gave the team enormous bragging rights. But Astana’s 2016 campaign has been incredibly forgettable, with only 18 wins so far. Vincenzo Nibali’s Giro effort is a disaster, and his last great ride involved the team car.
But Astana is one of the only teams with the coffers to pay Sagan, who after his classics dominance this year is bound to demand a hefty salary. According to the report in Gazetta dello Sport, Sagan could earn as much as 4 million Euros in the deal.
As a cycling fan, I don’t besmirch Sagan for taking the cash. But I don’t see a Sagan-Astana marriage being particularly fun.
There are cycling reasons behind this assessment, too. This year Sagan finally blossomed into the cobbled classics superstar we always knew was hiding in his sprinters legs. He won Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem with limited support from his Tinkoff teammates. They weren’t horrible, of course. Oscar Gatto made some of the final selections at Flanders. But it wasn’t as though Sagan had multiple teammates to call on for support, à la Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen.
Would a jump to Astana bring Sagan any better support? Assuming Lars Boom does not leave to race cyclocross, he could obviously assist Sagan on the cobblestones. The team also has Alexey Lutsenko, but that’s hardly a powerhouse squad. I do not believe Astana would offer any greater support than Tinkoff.
But back to the other, more pressing problems with Sagan with Astana.
As we all know, Sagan is a sports marketer’s dream. He’s well-spoken, friendly, and quick with a joke. He quotes “The Wolf of Wall Street” and livens up even those boring post-race interviews. He can hop into a top-level mountain bike race and hold his own. And yeah, he catches the eyes of female fans. He has all of the qualities to become cycling’s crossover star. You know, the guy who gains mainstream love for our wacky, niche sport.
In a perfect world, Sagan would land on a team with an aggressive public relations and marketing staff, who would hold repeated brainstorming sessions on how to get him into yogurt commercials or onto late night TV shows. “He needs to bunny hop onto Conan O’Brien’s desk? Yep, he can do that! He needs to nose-wheelie while sipping a Go-gurt? Sure! No problem!”
Astana, by contrast, is a black box of communication silence. You can credit that the team’s multiple doping suspensions and the constant threat to have its WorldTour license revoked. I can’t say whether or not the team employs an army of branding and PR specialists. My speculation, however, is that the team wouldn’t promote their star to the level he deserves. And if they did, would the interviews simply turn into a grill session about Astana’s latest polemic? “You vant to talk to Mr. Peter? NYET!”
In my perfect scenario, Sagan arrives to sign his new contract with Astana. At the last second, Vinokourov arrives. He’s wearing this amazing jersey, and tells Sagan that part of the deal requires him to race in the insane kit.
Sagan hops on his bicycle and wheelies out the door.