Peter Sagan’s booming laugh has been quiet for a while but as the World Championships near, the Slovakian seems back on form and keen to joke again.
So in an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews, Sagan couldn’t resist teasing about his future in the sport if he wins a record-breaking fourth rainbow jersey. It is perhaps a Sagian lapsus, a premonition or secret desire.
Sagan has been hit by COVID-19 three times in the last two years, twice wrecking his pre-season training and then again in the final days of the Tour de Suisse, close to the start of the Tour de France. He has only won eight races since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and many people have written him off. Yet that would be a mistake, especially at the World Championships.
He is one of only five riders to win the world title three times and despite recent illness at the Canada WorldTour races, he is now back on form and hungry to prove a point.
“Perhaps I’ll win the world title and then quit the road…” Sagan tells Cyclingnews, with a laugh and smile, an indication that he is back to his mischievous best.
“If I’m up there in the race, I want to do my best and so why can’t I win this time too? I’ve won the world title three times, so why not four?” he asks, more seriously.
“Of course it’s a unique race, you ride for your nation and so it can go your way or can be a disaster. I love riding Worlds every year because you never know how it will play out.”
Sagan recovered quickly from his third bout of COVID-19 at the Tour de Suisse in June and then won the Slovakian National Road Race Championships for the eighth time in his career.
He rode the Tour de France, finishing sixth, fourth and fifth in the opening road stages and then fourth in the sprint to Carcassonne and fifth on the Champs-Élysées. He was particularly angry and disappointed when Wout van Aert closed him against the barriers in Sønderborg on stage 3, convinced he could have come along the barriers to win.
His move to TotalEnergies surprised many but he has fitted in well in the French team and both parties have benefitted. Sagan may not have won big but TotalEnergies have racked up 15 victories and are on track to be the best-ranked ProTeam for 2022, giving them automatic invitations to WorldTour races in 2023 whatever happens in the relegation battle.
No need to save his 2022 season
Following the Tour de France Sagan quickly headed to Utah for a block of altitude training, returning to Europe to ride Bemer Cyclassics and the Bretagne Classic before travelling across the Atlantic again to race in Canada. A stomach problem meant he failed to finish in Quebec and Montreal proved too testing, but he remained upbeat about his season and his form.
“It hasn’t been my best season for sure, but it’s not been my worst and I’m not sure if I need to ‘save’ it. That’s not the way I look at my seasons or my career,” Sagan said, rebuking any idea that results at the World Championships will be the final judgement of his first season at TotalEnergies.
“In the last two years, due to COVID-19, I’ve had to do my pre-season training three times. I got sick, got fit, then got sick again and fit again. I’m pretty resilient but they’ve been two hard years.
“I think I’ve come back every time and always managed to win something. This year I won a stage at the Tour de Suisse and was up there at the Tour de France. One of those placings could easily have been a stage win, which would have changed people’s opinions.”
Sagan looks leaner than he has for a while. He doesn't publish information about his training on Strava or other platforms but insists he does the hard graft, often mixing his road sessions with mountain bike rides.
“I think my training and build-up has gone well in the last few weeks but it’s the results that confirm if you’re on form or not,” he points out.
“I’ve done serious work but also mixed in a fair bit of mountain biking. I think that’s always useful to give you that extra power in your pedal stroke. You’ve got to be careful at altitude when you make big efforts but now it’s time to see the fruit of all my work.”
Regrets about missing a fourth world title in Yorkshire, hoping for Wollongong
Sagan knows he is in the autumn of his career after 12 years of success and intense racing. A new generation of riders are emerging rapidly and new riders are winning the biggest races. But the same rules of success apply to everyone.
“I think I’ve worked harder than ever before in the last two years,” Sagan says, recalling how he has rebuilt his form each spring after suffering with COVID-19.
“Cycling has changed, that’s for sure. The way we race has changed, the riders have changed and so the way we train has evolved too.
“These days, if you’re not at your very best, you can’t win. Nobody can, not me, not Remco Evenepoel, not Wout van Aert, not Tadej Pogačar or Mathieu van der Poel. I think we’ve seen that at different moments in the season.”
Sagan won his first world title in 2015 in Richmond, in the USA, riding away from his rivals on the final lap. In 2016, he doubled-up in Doha, beating Mark Cavendish in the sprint after surviving the crosswinds in the desert. He won his third title in Bergen, Norway in 2017, coming from behind in the sprint to end Alexander Kristoff’s dream of a home victory.
He regrets not winning a fourth title in Yorkshire in 2019.
“I was on good form that day, if not my best ever form for Worlds…” he says.
“If it hadn’t rained hard all day it would be a very different race. In a normal race we would have chased the break down and sprinted for the win and I think I’d have been up there.”
Sagan won the sprint but for fifth place, 43 seconds after Mads Pedersen beat Matteo Trentin to win the rainbow jersey.
Sagan remembers each World Championship. He prefers to look back than forward, always avoiding making predictions about races with his ‘we’ll see…’ dismissive. It is the same for Wollongong, regarding the course and his rivals.
“I need to see the course properly before understanding how the race can go and who the riders to watch are,” he says.
“The course seems to have quite a lot of climbing but there’s a long ride south and then the laps of the city. It could be easy or it could be hard. It suits a lot of riders and could go lots of ways, so it’ll be a finely balanced race.
“The important thing is to feel good and be up there. If you’re there on the last lap when the race is decided, anything can happen.”
Who won the last time we raced the world championships in Australia? I’ll tell you. It was my first elite worlds but I had a terrible race and needed to stop to go to the toilet. Philippe Gilbert was the big favourite but then Thor Hushovd won and won it well in the sprint.
“People are saying Belgium are the strongest nation this year but we’ll see…”
Whatever happens in Wollongong on Sunday, win or lose, Sagan hopes to race again in 2022 and even at another world championships.
“I want to focus on the road worlds and then possibly think about riding the Gravel World Championships,” he reveals.
“It’s a cool event and in Italy, where I started my pro career, but there’s also a lot to pull together, including my other obligations, a travel plan and the bikes. I’m going to take it one World Championship at a time.”
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has been Head of News at Cyclingnews since 2022, before which he held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and CyclingWeekly, among other publications.