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Team Sagan: Meet Jan Valach, Peter Sagan’s sports director

No matter the event Peter Sagan races, sport director Jan Valach is there for the supremely talented Slovakian.

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Peter Sagan is nothing less than a giant in the sport of cycling and at this year’s Giro d’Italia he has already won a stage, and is wearing the ciclamino points jersey competition leader as he has so often done with the green jersey in the Tour de France. Sagan, after all, is not only one of the winningest cyclists in the history of the sport, he is one of its biggest personalities. But behind Sagan is an entire close-knit support group that ensures that the highly-solicited rider can simply focus on doing what he does best — winning bike races.

We got behind the scenes with Sagan’s inner circle before this year’s Giro d’Italia, and for the third of our four-part series, we feature Jan Valach, Sagan’s longtime sports director.

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Peter Sagan is known for many things, his many wins as a bike racer, not to mention his gregarious persona. And behind the wheel of the Bora-Hansgrohe team car sits his virtual alter ego, Jan Valach. Like Sagan, Valach is from Slovakia, but while he was a pioneering professional cyclist for his country, his own career was comparatively modest. While Sagan can be wildly entertaining, Valach is known for his discretion.

For much of the past decade, their differences have formed a perfect fit as Valach has been Sagan’s sports director on his pro teams, as well as for the Slovakian national team at the world championships.

“I met Peter a long time ago,” Valach told VeloNews before the start of the Giro d’Italia. “I think I first met him when he was still a junior. I was closing out my career and Peter was just coming up. My last year racing was 2009 so we actually raced for one year together. He was 18 that year but we did one race together and I remember talking to him.”

To the up-and-coming Sagan, Valach was nothing sort of a national reference as he had won the national road race and time trial on numerous occasions. But if Valach was a sort of senior statesman in Slovakian cycling, the teenage Sagan was already attracting plenty of attention.

“From the very beginning everybody in Slovakia knew that Peter was really, really strong,” Valach recalls. “Be it on a mountain bike or cyclocross he was just really strong and also technically just incredible. Cycling was just a game for him, and he already earned a reputation as a really funny guy on the bike.”

Sagan is in the ciclamino — as the leader of the points competition at the 2021 Giro d’Italia — and refuses to let it go. Photo: LUCA BETTINI/AFP via Getty Images

With his career winding down Valach started directing the Slovakian national team, working with Sagan during the 2010 world championships in Geelong, Australia, the start of what would become a long-term relationship.

“At one point Peter wanted me to work with him more closely throughout the season,” Valach added. And in 2016 when Valach came to the Tinkoff team, the two began a full-time collaboration, and they been virtually inseparable since.

Valach was with Sagan when he won monuments like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and he was with Sagan as national team director for all three of Sagan’s world championship titles.

“While I will never forget that first world championship title in Richmond, for me his third world championships in Norway was his biggest win,” Valach says. “Before the race and all day long, we knew Peter was on the verge of greatness, and to finally pull it off, to win three world championship titles in a row, well that was really something. It was a hard race and he even got dropped on the last climb, but he caught back on and then won the sprint. That was just amazing!”

While there are many undeniable highs with Sagan, Valach admits there are plenty of challenges too. “No, it is not always easy,” Valach says. With Peter, either he is going for the win or nothing. There is no middle ground. So we have to be really prepared for everything with him before the race and during the race.”

For Valach, however, it is not the victories that impress him the most, but his entire approach to the sport. “Peter was the first guy to show that cycling not just about GC riders, climbers, and sprinters, [but] that there was another way to make your mark in the sport. And today you see a whole generation of riders like that, riders that are good in cyclo-cross or mountain biking but also really good on the road,” Valach says. “He is also really, really professional. He takes his responsibility 100 percent and never is crying or complaining. He is never crying about the bad weather or the bad conditions. Obviously, he is really strong on the bike, but he is also just really tough. And if things don’t go his way, he never complains. Sure he might not be happy if he feels like he had the legs to win and things don’t go his way, but he is not going to be pointing fingers at others looking for an excuse. No that’s not Peter.”

For Valach, the 2019 world championships in Yorkshire represented a prime example of Sagan’s ability to filter defeat.

“That day he really had the legs to win. The weather was just terrible all day long but he was so strong. The only problem was that all of the big favorites were watching him when the breakaway got away. But when he finally realized that everybody was exhausted and broke away there just was not enough time to catch them in the lead group. That was such a hard day in the rain, and everybody was just destroyed. But Peter was fine. And when I got back to the bus and saw him, that was really hard because, well, I knew that he really could have won. But still, he didn’t complain.”

Sagan, 31, is at the end of his contract with Bora-Hansgrohe and speculation abounds regarding his future. But like the rest of Sagan’s inner circle, Valach is convinced that Sagan still has plenty of victories ahead.

“You know, as a classics rider, Peter is just coming into his own. The early 30s are perfect for classics riders and I think he still can do a lot of great things there. And he is clearly really, really motivated for them. The thing about Peter is not just what he wins but the way he wins. Peter always wins big.”