At just 23 years old, Peter Sagan's bike-handling skills and ability to win are already legendary. YouTube videos of the Cannondale sprinter riding a no-handed wheelie downhill or wrangling his bike up to the roof of a team car have gone viral.
But the Slovakian national champion's skills are for more than just show. He's twice won the green sprinter's jersey in the Tour de France, and he's piled up 21 wins so far this season, the latest coming Sunday at the Tour of Alberta when he slung himself through the final corner past UnitedHealthcare's Robert Förster to take his third win of the week.
"I started riding on the bike when I was six years old," he said in response to a question about where he developed his handling skills. "And with the races I started the mountain bike when I was nine years old. But I think this stuff you can't learn. You're born with this, and when you have fear you can't do this."
Aside from just not showing fear and having beyond-category skills, Sagan seems to simply enjoy riding his bike and competing on the road against the best riders in the world.
"You see what he does on the bike," said Ted King, who has been Sagan's teammate for the past three years. "You see what he does on the podium. You see how he handles himself. I mean, he's 23 years old. He's a kid who's tremendously talented, and he has a lot of fun.
"The bike is an extension of his body," King continued. "So when you see what he's capable of on two wheels, or one wheel, it's absolutely phenomenal. He's a good, humble, friendly, generous kid."
Brian Vandborg, who joined Cannondale this season, said he believes Sagan's fun-loving, low-stress attitude is one of the keys to his teammate's success.
"Peter is a one-of-a-kind, for sure," Vandborg said. "He's obviously a huge, huge, huge talent first of all. And he likes to have fun. You never really feel a lot of pressure with him. Even though everyone knows he's a big favorite. The quick summary is that he's easy going and goofing around a lot. He makes it seem more like fun than actual work a lot of the time."
Sagan said that having fun at his chosen profession is good not just for himself, but for everyone else involved as well.
"It's something that I want," he said. "I don't like stress. It's better for everybody I think, no? And for the sport, the competition is always better."
King said Sagan's attitude and ability to bring home the win at the end of a hard day help tie the team together and to bring out the best in all of those around him, even on long trips away from home.
"You're going to bury yourself that much further," King said. "I mean we're a team of six [at the Tour of Alberta], and we're going against plenty of big, powerful American teams, and obviously full-roster ProTour teams, and it just makes you go that much harder knowing that you have a pretty darn good chance of winning the stage. It just raises the atmosphere, raises the mood and makes everybody happier."
With so much success so early in his career, questions almost inevitably turn to whether Sagan, who already has 54 professional wins and has ridden three Grand Tours, could ever take the overall at one of cycling's three-week races.
"It's always a big question, like Cancellara a couple of years ago," Vandborg said. "I think it will be hard. He still has some baby fat he can lose, and obviously he has to lose some muscle as well if he wants to do it. And that maybe goes a little bit against his nature of just wanting to have fun and not taking life too seriously. I think in order to reach a goal like that – to win a Grand Tour – you have to maybe make even more sacrifices."
But King said anything is possible with his phenomenal young teammate.
"The knee-jerk answer is no," King said. "But then he's proven over the past three years that virtually anything is possible. What's cool is he out-sprints the climbers and he out-climbs the sprinters, and then often he out-sprints the sprinters and out-climbs the climbers. So he's just been phenomenal.
"If you look at a Grand Tour, the things that he's lacking are extended time trialing and extended climbing," King said. "But he puts up phenomenal power numbers, and his prologues are absolutely on par with the best guys in the world, so maybe it's perfectly possible."
Vandborg said he thinks Sagan should take a shot at the general classification in the Tour de France at least once.
"He's already accomplished so much," Vandborg said. "But I think he should keep doing this for another couple of years, and then I think getting older he will automatically lose some weight. If I was him I would try it, because so far there is no limit to what he can do, so I think it's a natural goal for him to have, to at least try it."