On a seasonably overcast and drizzly Slovakian day in November, Peter Sagan got married. His bride, Katarina Smolkova, arrived at the church in an elegant white dress. The cyclist emerged as if he’d just raided the “Game of Thrones” wardrobe room.
Consistent with his riding style of controlled abandon, Sagan, the defending Amgen Tour of California champion, was wed in orchestrated flamboyance. He wore a long-tailed, gold-embroidered velvet jacket, a fur-adorned leather overcoat and tall boots. His long, perfectly waved locks out-coiffed his soon-to-be-wife’s hairstyle.
He carved through a log with a hacksaw and chainsaw, a symbolic Slovakian tradition to “unlock” his bride’s house. He rode a bike across a tightrope secured between poles with his bride monitoring the safety wiring below.
That’s how Sagan, 26, rolls. Little about the reigning road world champion is subtle, on or off his bike.
“I just bring what I want,” Sagan said during a recent telephone interview while traveling between mountain bike races in Europe. “It’s important to have fun. For me, I don’t know, it’s just me, living my life.”
Sagan will begin the defense of his 2015 title, capping the closest race in the event’s history, on Sunday. The Tour of California’s 11th and longest edition will start in San Diego and advance for eight days and about 800 miles to its May 22 finish in Sacramento.
Sagan has won a record 13 stages in six consecutive Tour of California appearances. He won last year on the final day with a third-place photo finish over sprinting specialist Tyler Farrar. His four bonus seconds in the final sprint and a one-second sprint bonus earlier in the stage gave him a three-second margin over Julian Alaphilippe of France. The previous day, he stayed with the race’s top climbers until near the end, finishing sixth at the top of Mt. Baldy.
“I have been to California what, seven times? No, it’s six,” said Sagan, who is in his eighth pro season and second with Tinkoff, a team owned by eccentric Russian businessman Oleg Tinkoff. “I don’t know why I have been so successful, really. I have different characteristics maybe in the climbs and in the sprints.”
Sagan’s Tour of California victory could have been considered cycling’s best performance of the year. But four months later, he topped it by winning the world road race title in Richmond, Va., with a late-race solo breakaway. Slovakia earlier this year debuted a postage stamp to commemorate the victory.
In 2012, Sagan won five of eight stages of the Tour of California, an example of his dominance. He’ll enter this year’s race with 77 wins and 284 top-10 finishes in 520 races. This season, he’s won the Tour of Flanders and Gent Wevelgem, prestigious one-day races in Europe, and has six second-place finishes.
More than anything, Sagan relishes the show. His bike-handling YouTube videos are increasingly popular. Last December, Sagan, his wife and several friends published a three-minute tribute video to the musical “Grease” on YouTube; it has received more than 1 million views.
To further stamp his individualism, Sagan began this season dismissing one the sport’s unwritten etiquettes – he competed for weeks with unshaven legs. When he acquiesced to the sport’s tradition, it was a social media occasion and added to Sagan’s persona.
Like several other road cycling champions, Sagan switched to the discipline after a junior career in cyclo-cross and mountain biking. He won the junior world championship in the latter discipline but failed in his early road cycling efforts and nearly quit.
Sagan tried again with the encouragement of friends and family. He joined a second-level pro team in 2009 and began winning major races a year later, including his first two Tour of California stages on consecutive days. He won on a flat, windy day in Bakersfield and followed with the first mountain finish in the race’s history, at Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Most pro cyclists learn their strengths early and develop as climbers, sprinters, time trialists or team riders. Riders with superior climbing and time trial skills win stage races. Specialists in one discipline usually win one-day races. Most pros compete as team riders, with infrequent moments in the spotlight.
Sagan excels in every category. He’s considered cycling’s best bike handler and descender. He maneuvers around corners sometimes on tangents seemingly unwise or in lines no one else rides.
“I don’t think about fear when I am on the bike,” he said. “And I don’t think I am the best descender in the world. But maybe on some descents, I take more risk. Normally, when I descend, I just don’t have fear.”
Santa Rosa’s Peter Stetina, who finished sixth in the 2014 Tour of California, embraces Sagan with a tone voiced throughout the sport.
“He’s an anomaly; he’s that guy,” said Stetina, team leader of Trek-Segafredo. “He’s got the right combination of fast twitch, slow twitch, guts. He’s a showman, he’s amicable, and he’s not afraid of anything.
“You can just see the guy likes to race and have fun, with popping wheelies (at finish lines) and all that. I enjoyed watching him last year from the couch (while recovering from a crash). I was tuning in to the Tour of California every day, sitting there with a cast on my leg. Actually, to see him turn himself inside out like that on that last climbing stage was pretty impressive.”
Bradley Wiggins, a 36-year-old British veteran who won the 2012 Tour de France and 2014 Tour of California, also is one of cycling’s showmen.
“I like the fact that (Sagan) is a bit different and brings something else to the sport, which not a lot of other riders do these days,” Wiggins told CyclingNews.com. “It’s his demeanor and the way he carries himself.
“I think it’s what the sport needs. We need characters like Sagan, and there aren’t many left now. Everyone is so kind of regimented and fearful of their jobs, I think, fearful to be different. It was just the way Sagan threw his bike when he won the Worlds. It’s the kind of thing I would have done.”
PETER SAGAN FILE
- Born: Jan. 26, 1990, Zilina, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia).
- Height/weight: 6-0, 163
- Nickname: The Terminator
- Professional teams: Dukla Trencin-Merida (2009), Liquigas-Domo (2010-2014), Tinkoff (2015-current).
- Tour of California stage wins/results: 2010, Stages 5 and 6, eighth overall; 2011, Stage 5, 35th overall; 2012, Stages 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8, 42nd overall; 2013, Stages 3 and 6; 56th overall; 2014, Stage 7, 55th overall; 2015, Stages 4 and 6, race winner.
- Major international wins: Tour de France (four stages), Tour of Spain (four stages), Tour of Pologne (overall title, 2011), Giro di Sardegna (overall title, 2011), World road race (2015), National road race (2011-2015), National time trial (2015), Tour of Flanders, 2016), Gent Wevelgem (2013, 2016), Montreal Grand Prix (2013), E3 Harelbeke (2014), Brabantse Pijl (2013).
2016 Tour of California
- When: May 15-22
- Where: The men’s race opens with a 106-mile stage in San Diego.
- Local stages: The 132.4-mile fifth stage takes riders from Lodi to South Lake Tahoe; the sixth stage is a time trial in Folsom; the 109-mile seventh stage is in Santa Rosa
- Finish: The final stage, on May 22, starts and finishes in Sacramento near the State Capitol. The 84.8-mile stage takes riders through the Delta and across the Tower Bridge twice.
- Women’s race: Starts in South Lake Tahoe on May 19, with stages in Folsom and Santa Rosa before the final 41-mile stage in Sacramento.