VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt have been covering European cycling since the 1990s. In this weekly series, they will dip into their memory banks to explore some of the biggest names and events during the past few decades. This week, we look at Peter Sagan, one of the biggest champions, not to mention one of the biggest personalities of our time.
When did you realize that he was special?
James Startt: Well that moment probably dates back to his first year as a professional when he blasted to two stage wins in Paris-Nice in 2010. Paris-Nice is a huge race and for a neo-pro to win two stages was a real eye-opener. The second stage victory was especially impressive because he just dropped the field on this steep climb a couple of kilometers from the finish. I remember seeing him before the start one morning. He was still a teenager and still a bit chubby. He was very unassuming in some ways, but obviously just bursting with talent.
And then there was that first green jersey in the 2012 Tour de France. He could just do anything that year and he won three stages in very different ways, uphill finishes, mass sprints, you name it.
Andy Hood: I remember one of my colleagues in 2010 oohing and ahhing about some young rider who was attacking everyone at the Tour Down Under that winter. And then — boom! — Peter Sagan introduces himself to the European peloton by winning two stages at Paris-Nice that March. For anyone paying attention, those wins put Sagan directly on the map. It was obvious the kid packed huge power and an explosive finish. The fun was just beginning.
What was your standout moment in covering Sagan?
Startt: For me probably his Paris-Roubaix victory in 2018. That or his big solo victory in Flanders. But I wasn’t at that race so I will say Roubaix. In addition, I was photographing him that year for 100% glasses so I followed him during the recon and all. There is a certain nonchalance with Sagan. He is just so relaxed. I remember on the recon, when some of his teammates started pushing the pace, he just drifted off the back at one point and was just sort of rolling along. He was so detached. But on race day he was so focused, attacking early with the world champions jersey on his shoulders and just dropping all of the big teams and favorites.
Hood: Like James, it had to be the 2018 Roubaix. That year I was traveling with James in his car as he chased the cobblestone sectors. It’s one of the great days to be a cycling journalist. With the media access, you can weave in and out of the route, and with a bit of serendipity and top driving skills, you can see the race at four or five sectors. It’s not as easy as it used to be, as there are more police controls and way more traffic, but that day, with James behind the wheel, we managed to see two or three sectors before the Arenberg. After that, we posted up on a sector right when Sagan was making the winning attack, it literally happened right in front of us. From there, we hit a quick sector of the Carrefour de l’Arbre, and then B-lined it for the velodrome. This time lady luck turned against us, and we were caught up at a railroad crossing. Traffic was blocked for what seemed like an eternity, and we can see the trailing TV helicopters in the distance push ever closer toward Roubaix. Our hearts sank as we thought we would miss the velodrome finale, but the train finally came, and we followed a half-dozen media and team cars to speed toward the velodrome. He managed to ditch the car, sprint into the velodrome literally on the bell lap, and we had a front-row seat to watch Sagan sprint to victory — pure magic.
Do you have any personal story, or anecdote, from interaction with Sagan?
Hood: Flash-forward about 10 years, and Sagan is a huge superstar. And he’s back at the 2018 Tour Down Under, showing off his new “Why so serious?” tattoo emblazoned on his torso. Fans crowded around him everywhere he went, and he took it all in stride. A few days later, Specialized organized some sort of meet-and-greet event with a handful of dealers and top customers. Sagan showed up, popped some wheelies, and began to delight the fans, patiently posing for photos and signing autographs. Sagan sometimes chafes at the media, especially when he was younger, and the press kept asking, “Hey, Peter, when are you going to win a monument?” He finally shut us all up with three straight world titles and wins at Flanders and Roubaix. Sagan, however, is very authentic with the fans. I remember one year in a pre-COVID Tour, I was walking back to the start of a stage with all the team buses lined up in a row, and it was a long jaunt of 400m or so. I coincided with Sagan, and I was walking behind his slipstream. Many pros just blank the fans when they ride toward a start or offer a few half-hearted waves. Not Sagan. He stopped every 5 or 10 meters, and posed for photos, and signed a few autographs. And he basically does that every day.
Startt: I have been fortunate to work closely with Peter off and on over the years. I am always impressed by the attention he gives to the fans as he obviously really values that relationship.
Unlike some riders, he is not real chatty. But he is always just so relaxed and so professional. You ask him to do something and he does it. Just very easy.
But by far my greatest memory was this past spring when I brought Peter and Freddy Maertens together. Freddy had told me earlier in the year that he was friends with Peter, and that sometimes they met up when Peter came to the Tour of Flanders.
I said instantly that we had to document this friendship. I called up Gabriele, Peter’s press officer the week before the race and said, “Freddy says that he and Peter are good friends. Is this true and if so I would love to photograph them together. I know that Peter is under a lot of pressure here at Flanders but would it be possible ?” And Gabriele just said instantly, “If it is for Freddy we will make it happen!”
It was one of the real high points of my career covering cycling. I loved the series of photographs from that encounter but I also loved the interview that I did with the two of them for VeloNews afterward. They just talked back and forth so easily. Freddy was like a muse for Peter and every time Freddy said something you could tell that Peter really listened. Later Gabriele told me, “You know Peter really liked that. It wasn’t an interview. It was a conversation.”