The Rock Star of Cycling – Wall Street Journal
Off the bike, the first thing you notice about Peter Sagan is the hair.
The hair is magnificent. It’s chestnut-brown with blondish streaks, and it brushes the shoulders of Sagan’s rainbow-striped jersey, which he wears because he’s the sport of road cycling’s reigning world champion. It is not the hair of a typical bike racer. It is the hair of a man who holds a sword while fighting a tiger—and perhaps a two-headed eagle—on the cover of a fantasy paperback.
It’s mid-May, outside San Diego. In a day, the Tour of California race begins, one week pedaling up the state’s scenic coastline. Sagan is the defending champion here, and this morning, a cluster of cyclists wait outside the camper for his team, Tinkoff Sport. They look like teenagers loitering by a stage door.
That’s fitting, because Sagan is cycling’s rock star. A 26-year-old from Slovakia, Sagan is a dazzling talent who has already won many races. But wins alone do not fully explain his popularity. It’s the way that Sagan wins—through aggressive, old-fashioned, almost romantic efforts. Meanwhile, he is also something of an eccentric, beloved by cycling fans for his wheelies across the finish line, for breaking tradition and not shaving his legs at the start of this season (he eventually caved and shaved), and his American-influenced purchasing habits. Sagan recently took delivery on a classic 1970 Dodge Charger that can blast a foghorn as well as the “Dukes of Hazzard” theme.
“Peter is a beautiful muscle car,” says Sagan’s friend,
whose company oversaw the build. “He has that raw street power.”
Oh, there’s also the fact that Sagan and his wife, Katarina, made a shot-for-shot remake of the last scene of “Grease.” More on that in a bit.
The Tour de France begins Saturday, and the athletically-built Sagan will not contend for the famed yellow jersey, which is expected to be a battle between featherweight climbers like Britain’s Chris Froome, Colombia’s Nairo Quintana, and Sagan’s teammate,
of Spain. But Sagan is the prohibitive favorite to win the green “points” jersey as the tour’s best sprinter—and throughout the race, he’ll be one of the most watched riders in the field.
He always is. That Crazy Bike Person at your workplace who can’t stop talking about pro cycling? Chances are his or her favorite racer is Sagan.
“If I ever grow up, I want to be like Peter Sagan,” says Jens Voigt, the cultishly popular German rider who retired from cycling in 2014. “He’s the Man.”
“I don’t fangirl about people in cycling,” says Evelyn Stevens, the elite American women’s rider newly named to the U.S. Olympic team. “But I do about Sagan.”
Here, outside the camper, Sagan finally appears. The hair and the rainbow stripes are the easy giveaway. He steps inside the RV, where he takes a seat toward the front. Espressos are served in tiny plastic cups.
“I like it here, California,” he says, leaning back and taking a sip. “It was always my dream, to come to America.”
He wants to go surfing while he’s here. Of course he does. Sagan has a touch of Jeff Spicoli, the dude-like antihero from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Bike racers are often wired twitchy, jumpy. Sagan is chill.
“I am more easygoing,” he says. “My hobby is my job, so I can ride, have fun and take some money.”
He chuckles. Sagan is one of the highest paid riders in the sport, at a salary reported to be close to $4.5 million annually, and he is beloved by his sponsors.
“He’s got the charisma, the star quality, the swagger,” says Slate Olson, chief marketing officer at Specialized, the Morgan Hill, Calif., company which provides bikes to Sagan and Tinkoff. “The way he competes, it’s just captivating.”
At the moment, Sagan is in the best stretch of his career. Last July, he won the Tour de France’s green jersey for the fourth consecutive time. Then he took Worlds. This spring, there were breakthrough victories in a pair of grueling, one-day “classic” races: Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.