Last week Dutch website NRC published Dennis Meinema’s wonderful in-depth story about Peter Sagan. Meinema went on a comprehensive reporting mission for the story, and interviewed the cycling star’s parents, family, and friends in his Slovakian hometown, Zilina.
As you would expect, Sagan’s formative years contain plenty of amusing anecdotes. These stories provide fresh insight into the guy we know best for his unexpected attacks, death-defying descending skills, and entertaining victory salutes. So just who is Peter Sagan, really? Let’s dig into Meinema’s story for some of the key moments from Sagan’s early years.
Sagan was never cut out for the corporate world
According to family lore, Sagan made a habit of sneaking out of kindergarten to find more interesting pursuits. His mother Helena should have seen it coming when he dropped out of school as a teenager to pursue pro cycling in Italy. He was studying to be an administrative assistant — how exciting would that office have been with Sagan doing wheelies over to the copy machine every day? Corporate Slovakia must still rue the missed opportunity.
That special bond between coach and rider
Arguably the greatest rider in the modern peloton, Sagan could probably write a book on bike racing (if he’d stayed in school). However, he’s still open to coaching advice. For instance, coach Peter Zanicky likes to huddle with his friends at the pub and, after a few pints, they come up with novel victory salutes, which Sagan adopts at the races.
And their relationship goes even deeper — how’s this for a coach finding a way to motivate his rider:
Recently, Zanicky challenged his former pupil to a game of arm-wrestling in a Zilina bar. Peter so much wanted to win that he brought enough force to actually break Zanicky’s arm, according to his friend and manager Matej Vysna.
If we had to guess, Zanicky is probably the guy who convinced Sagan to go with the “Incredible Hulk” persona a few years ago.
He’s always been a fighter
Zanicky also recalls how Sagan had a breakdown at the start of a junior mountain bike race: “I saw him standing at the start, crying. He had hit his knee against the frame and now he thought the match didn’t make any sense.” Coach told him to buck up and race, so that’s just what Sagan did. And he won the race. Attention Hollywood producers: We have found the pivotal scene in the inevitable Peter Sagan biopic. Royalty check, please!
The king of Zilina
According to the story, Sagan avoids Slovakia because he can’t walk around without being recognized and cornered by fans. In his industrial hometown, where many of the 80,000 residents work at a Kia car factory, Sagan’s family has a little compound of houses, loaded with cycling memorabilia, where his parents live. Sagan, the youngest of six, is happy to help his siblings. He helped Daniela open a salon in downtown Zilina. Perhaps he’ll give back to his entire hometown as a city councilman after he retires. Zilina spokesperson Pavel Corba is sure that he’d be elected, calling him “the greatest townsman we’ve ever had.” Maybe if Sagan is in charge, he’d bring a flashier car brand to town, in keeping with his sense of style. Tom Boonen is going to promote Dutch sports car company Donkervoort — maybe Sagan will bring some American muscle to the Slovakian heartland?
Seriously not too serious
You’ve probably seen Sagan’s goofy videos and various antics. But did you realize that the local theater in Zilina has a satirical play about the star’s life? Fans: It’s time to get this oeuvre translated into English and brought to Broadway.
Michal Nemeth plays one of the main characters in ‘Tourminator’, a satirical play about Sagan’s life that’s been running for a number of years in the local theater. According to Nemeth, Sagan’s great strength is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Nemec: “That’s essential, because then you have energy left for the really important things. Ice hockey players in this country think they’re terribly important. Not Sagan, he’s able to laugh at himself. During the opening night we could hear where he was sitting in the audience. He laughed the loudest. Even if the jokes were pretty tough sometimes.”
Racing like an animal
Does Sagan rely on technology or scientific training plans to win big races? Nope. He taps into his animal instincts. “He told me afterwards that he hadn’t felt any anxiety or pain, instead he concentrated on the animals along the track, the spectators,” Zanicky told Meinema about Sagan’s win in Tour of Flanders 2016. “He does everything by feel. Don’t come to him with wattage meters or training sessions, he doesn’t see the point.”