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Peter Sagan is nothing less than a giant in the sport of cycling.
Not only is he one of the winningest cyclists in the history of the sport, he is also one of the sport’s 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 first of our four-part series, we feature Maros Hlad, Sagan’s soigneur.
It is hard to overlook Maros Hlad whenever Peter Sagan shows up for a bike race. After all, Sagan’s personal soigneur is often at his side. And with his bold features, he is even at times confused for Sagan’s brother. But in many ways Hlad and Sagan are brothers.
“I think Peter was only 17 when I first met him,” Hlad told VeloNews. “Like Peter, I am from Slovakia, and we could tell from the very beginning that Peter was something special, that he was just a huge talent and was going to be a very big rider. Already as a junior, he was racing with the U23 teams and he could just do everything from cyclocross to mountain biking to road racing, you name it.”
Hlad was already working as a massage therapist for Slovakia’s national handball team, and he would occasionally help out with the country’s cycling federation. That’s how he first met Peter.
“I think it was his brother Juraj that introduced us at a national training camp once,” he said. “He asked if I could also do some massages for Peter, which I did in my spare time. After that, he asked if I could come to his house and do some massages. And then when he turned professional in 2010 he called me asked if I could come work for him at the end of his first professional season. So I went and worked with him at the Vuelta a España, as well as all of the races at the end of the season. And I have been with him ever since.”
It is said that no one spends more time with a professional cyclist than the team soigneur. They are up first thing in the morning preparing the food and drink for the race. They are at the feed zones, the finish line, and later that night on the massage table.
“In Peter’s case, I am the first person he comes to at the finish and I am with him on the podium, at doping control, and in the car returning from the race,” Hlad said. “And then every night we have them on the table for an hour.”
The evening massage — which may last for 90 minutes to two hours — starts first with a conversation. “Every day I watch the race closely and really watch how Peter is in the race to see if there might be a problem,” he said. “And then in the evening, I want to know from him just how his day went. I want to see if there is anything, in particular, I need to look out for or work on with him.”
It is clear that Sagan and Hlad can talk about anything, and they often do. He was with there in Sagan’s breakout 2012 Tour de France, where they concocted different finish line gestures he would employ if he won. “Yeah I was there with him when he decided to do The Incredible Hulk gesture,” Hlad said. “But I was also there when he was going through his separation.”
But while conversation flows freely between them, Hlad his happiest when Sagan simply sleeps on the table. “I really try to let Peter be and let him sleep. I don’t talk with him that much on the table because I really want him to relax,” Hlad said. “Obviously I am there for him if he wants to speak about something. But really I want him to relax. He always asks me at the end of the massage what I think, if his legs are good. And I am always honest with him. I tell him if his legs are okay, if they are good or if they are really good. It is better like this.”
Hlad knows athletes. He knows bodies. And he knows muscle structure. It has always been clear to him that Sagan possesses something special.
“Physically, Peter is so strong. He has a level of recovery that is really exceptional. I think that separates him from most cyclists,” Hlad said. “And he has a clean head. He really knows what he has to do to be at his best. He knows the training he needs to do and he knows the races he needs to do. His head is always firmly on his shoulders. And that is really important for all of the big riders I think. You have to have a clear head. As a result maybe, when he shows up to a big important race, he always arrives in a good mood. He is happy. It may be a huge race, but he isn’t nervous. He is just happy to be there and excited.”
For Hlad, little has surprised him when it comes to Sagan. And the immense champion that Sagan is today, is simply the logical progression of the Sagan Hlad first met as a teenager. “For me, nothing has changed with Peter. He was always immensely talented and still is today. It is no surprise for me at all that Peter became the champion that he is today. I really pretty much expected it.”
But mostly, beyond the results, it is clear that Sagan is a friend. “You know we don’t even need to talk,” Hlad said. “Peter is like family. He is like the second father for my son Theodore. And with the Juraj and Peter, I am like another brother.”