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Sagan embraces role as peloton's spokesman

Peter Sagan went training in the world champion's rainbow for the first time in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday and will make his racing debut in the rainbow stripes on the opening stage of the race on Thursday.

The first three stages of the four-day race are flat and fast, giving Sagan several opportunities to notch up his first win in cycling's most iconic jersey and debunk any suggestions that even a rider of the caliber of Sagan will be dogged by the curse of the rainbow jersey. He has not raced since making his decisive and spectacular solo attack in Richmond and so may struggle but is keen to honour the world champion's rainbow jersey.

"It been a crazy few days since I won the world title. Now I understand why it's at the end of the season, it can destroy you. But it's very nice so far," Sagan in an interview with Cyclingnews in Abu Dhabi.

"It's a nice feeling to ride in the rainbow jersey. When I pulled on the jersey I didn't actually want to ride in it, I didn't want to get it dirty. Maybe I'll need new kit after every ride…."

The decision to match white shorts with the rainbow jersey sparked much debate on social media but the Tinkoff-Saxo team and clothing supplier Sportful had to respect the strict UCI rules governing the design of the rainbow jersey or risk a 10,000 Swiss Franc fine. The rules allow either team issue shorts or white shorts and so Sagan opted for an all-white look rather than combining the standard yellow and blue Tinkoff-Saxo colours.

Sagan revealed that he is no fan of white shorts and is hoping to add some black panels as soon as possible. The design of the 2016 team kit may also change to help Sagan avoid a fashion disaster next season.

"The rules about it are strict and all the world is controlled by rules. We've got to accept them," Sagan said. "We've asked for permission to have a black inner part of the shorts but we haven't had a response from the UCI yet."

Ready to be a spokesman for the peloton

The rainbow jersey stands out as a point of reference in the peloton on and off the bike, and Sagan has not shied away from his newly won status. He spoke about the European refugee crisis immediately after winning the world title in Richmond and was not afraid to raise the problem of the high temperatures (35-40C) forecast for this week's Abu Dhabi Tour during the pre-race press conference on Tuesday.

"I say what I think because hopefully cycling is a democratic country," he said. "It perhaps depends on how other riders feel about it but I'm willing to speak about when necessary. Who can do it if not the world champion?"

"I spoke about refugees in Europe but it's a global problem. Our generation faces a difficult time in the world. I think it's an important subject for everyone. I said I'd speak out if I won the world title and I did. It's a complex problem and one that the politicians have to sort out."

Staying grounded

Sagan was often criticised when he failed to win a major Classic in the spring but perception of his ability and results changed during the Tour de France when he racked up 11 top-five placings, using his breadth of talent to go on the attack or mix it with the pure sprinters day after day. Sagan did not seem to care about the criticism then, even from vociferous team owner Oleg Tinkov, and is not getting carried away by the praise he has received since becoming world champion.

"I never really spend time worrying about if I win or not. The most important thing is that I never gave up," he said.

"I've always been described as the favourite for lots of races but then when I was only second, third or fourth I was criticised for not performing well enough. But sport is very strange. Sport is nice but it's also very hard. We have to be happy with what we achieve."

"When you win a lot, you become like a cannibal and people perhaps don't like that. When you don't win, you're considered a loser and so people feel sorry for you. That's maybe why people were happy that I finally won something big…"

Some riders struggle with success, get distracted by stardom and let their ego take over their character, distracting them from the need to train hard and race with hunger. Sagan's life is currently a series of long celebrations and world champion's obligations but his agent Giovanni Lombardi and the Tinkoff-Saxo team have made it clear that Sagan will be protected and given time of to relax and train for 2016.

The Tinkoff-Saxo team will gather in Croatia at the end of October, with the team's official 2016 team presentation set to be held on December 20 in the French ski resort of Courchevel, where Tinkov is currently building a luxurious ski chalet. There will be no expensive and tiring boot camp or hike to the summit of Kilimanjaro this year after Bjarne Riis was forced out of the team.

Sagan does not seem overwhelmed at suddenly being world champion and so in the spotlight of world cycling. He still shrugs his shoulders frequently and still lets out is deep laugh when is amused by something he sees, hears or says. He still comes across as being sincere and open during interviews, mixes moments of fun and profundity as he talks about cycling, his personal life or global issues.

"It's nice to know that people and other riders were happy that I won the world title. But I don't think it will change me," he claimed. "I ride my bike like everyone else…. Perhaps I'm true that I'm a little different but I'm just a bike rider."

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Stephen Farrand
Stephen Farrand

Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.