The most exciting moments in pro cycling again involve Peter Sagan this year.
Except it’s not the times Sagan accelerates from the peloton like a teen testing out dad’s BMW. I’m referring to the moments when Peter Sagan sits down for an interview after a painful defeat.
Sagan squirms. He fidgets. He mugs for the camera and forces a smile. He delivers his answers in short, curious sentences that blur the line between playful and perturbed. At some point, he always becomes incredulous with the interviewer. Then Sagan’s charm takes over, and he offers a lighthearted one-liner that is retweeted a million times within seconds.
We saw Sagan bob and weave after losing Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to Greg Van Avermaet (“I think it’s normal if people they go on the toilet”). At Milano-Sanremo, Sagan offered more verbal ballet (“The result is important but so is putting on a show for the fans”). The most recent example was after Van Avermaet left him in the dust during a tactical Gent-Wevelgem (Against everybody, it’s not sport, this is just uh … very cheap game”).
I enjoy Sagan’s pithy interviews, yet I’m concerned. You see, I can spot an irritated person who is trying their hardest to remain cool. Sagan looks like a guy whose girlfriend just told him she’s having dinner with her ex. (No big deal! I’m totally fine with it!) Renaat Schotte, the Belgian TV analyst who conducted two of these interviews, told me that Sagan definitely put off the angry vibe after Omloop. “He is normally quite pleasant and is now a bit annoyed after losing,” Schotte said. “Look at the way he reacted after the loss in Milan. You could see a very pissed-off Sagan.”
Very pissed-off Sagan indeed.
There’s a good chance that we will see pissed-off Sagan again this classics season, perhaps even this weekend at the Tour of Flanders. Sagan is just as strong as ever. But alas, his Bora-Hansgrohe team is weak.
Bora is perhaps weaker than any squad he’s ever hauled into Flanders and Roubaix. Since February, Bora riders have been pack-fill. They are absent from breakaways, and rarely ride the front. When a race reaches its climax, Sagan is usually isolated. He chases down moves and bridges across huge gaps, taking a flamethrower to his matchbook in the process.
This is old hat for Sagan, who has a history of riding on weak classics teams, such as last year’s Tinkoff-Saxo squad, and his Slovak national team as well in the two world championships he has won. But Bora makes Tinkoff’s lineup of Oscar Gatto, Pavel Brutt, and Michael Gogl look like 1990s Mapei. While Sagan would never admit it, his weak team has contributed to his painful defeats.
At Milano-Sanremo, Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe both had sprinters in the bunch, allowing them to sit in the draft. Sagan had no sprinter, so he pulled. We can only estimate the number of watts Kwatkowski saved by riding on Sagan’s wheel — certainly enough to give him a tire’s advantage at the finish line.
This past Sunday showcased another Bora disaster. I’ve replayed Gent-Wevelgem numerous times, and the disparity in team strength is glaring. Within the final 50km BMC put in huge efforts to control breakaways, with Daniel Oss attacking just before the final ascent of the Kemmelberg to put Van Avermaet in the best position. Trek-Segafredo was similarly aggressive, as was Dimension Data. Quick Step attacked relentlessly, putting Zdenek Stybar, Terpstra, and Yves Lampaert into moves. Its tactics eventually led to Sagan’s downfall.
So who is to blame for Bora’s weak legs? Part of it must fall at the feet of Sagan himself.
Bora’s roster was heavily influenced by Sagan. He jointed the plucky German team because management agreed to hire his sizable entourage, which included six Tinkoff teammates: Michael Kolar, Erik Baska, Maciej Bodnar, Rafal Majka, Pawel Poljanski, and his brother Juraj. Sagan and his handpicked teammates now account for a quarter of the team’s roster.
Six teammates equals six important roster spots. Just three of those teammates are classics riders. Had Sagan not required Bora to hire Poljanski, Majka, and Baska, could he have three able-bodied rouleurs to assist him in his cobbled campaign? We’ll never know.
There’s something else to consider: Cash.
Sagan is cycling’s golden boy, earning a reported 6 million euro this year from Bora-Hansgrohe. In order to afford Sagan, team director Ralph Denk convinced his title sponsor to chip in additional funding. He also brought on supplemental cash sponsors Hansgrohe and Specialized.
I believe every professional cyclist should earn whatever the market supports. Is Sagan worth 6 million Euro? You bet.
But this is cycling, and resources are finite. Paying a 6 million euro salary inevitably forces a team to skimp in other areas. We see this in mainstream sports every year. Could the New York Knicks afford playoff-caliber players without Carmelo Anthony’s $24.5 million salary? Is Joe Flacco’s $29 million the reason for the Baltimore Ravens’s mediocre defense? Did Kobe Bryant’s $25 million-a-year deal doom the Los Angeles Lakers to mediocrity? Is Peter Sagan’s 6 million euro salary the reason why Bora has crummy domestiques?
We may never have the answer.
Instead, we will have more Peter Sagan giving wacky interviews on TV. And we will watch. We will cringe. We will laugh. We will repeat Sagan’s quotes to each other, and post them on Twitter. And maybe that’s all we really need.