May 15, 1988. Ayrton Senna laps the street circuit at Monaco a full 1.427 seconds faster than his closest competitor, then double world champion, Alain Prost, who happens to be his team-mate.
Senna’s performance in qualifying is mesmerising, even to him: he will later compare the lap to “an out of body experience”.
Peter Sagan is a resident of Monaco and no stranger to extraordinary sporting performances. He shares Senna’s exceptional talent – even his peers consider him uniquely gifted – but I shelve my carefully prepared question: Sagan is too level-headed for such flights of fancy.
He admits to no more than riding on instinct, which isn’t to suggest that he is unthinking. Spend anytime at all with Sagan and the routinely two-dimensional portrayal falls flat as easily as a cardboard cut-out. He is clearly intelligent, as well as being a physical phenomenon.
His television interview moments after winning the World Championships in Richmond last month was extraordinary. Sagan seized his first opportunity as professional cycling’s first citizen to address world issues. Was the plight of migrants to Europe uppermost in his thoughts?
“I was speaking more about general problems in the world,” he tells me. “Nobody looks anymore to friends, to family. Families are broken. I don’t know if now it’s popular or not, but families have to hold together, no?
“Also, now we have phones, computers, email, messages. We’re just losing life, because we’re always on the computer writing emails, and after the email you have a message, and after the message you have to call. Technology is moving very fast. Children no longer play with a ball in the road. After school, they’re inside on the computer playing games. Where is real life? This was the biggest problem that I was speaking about.”
An impressive speech for a sportsman, wouldn’t he agree? Sagan declines the complement with a raised eyebrow, than adds quietly: “Maybe it was also the motivation for me to win this race.”
Peter Panther. He moves with the grace of a jungle cat, padding around in the white shoes with rainbow stripes of which he seems inordinately proud. Photographer Marshall Kappel snaps a few test frames as I walk with Sagan to a quiet spot in the grounds of the Valamar Diamant hotel in Croatia, where Tinkoff-Saxo are holding their end-of-season meeting. The images are revealing. Aside from reducing me by his stature to something resembling a scale model, Sagan appears ready to break into a jog.
Things change little when he is seated. Kappel’s frames show Sagan involved in a seemingly unbroken stretching routine, though he is still and attentive during the interview. The moment it is over, he is back on his hind legs and prowling, then with one foot on a low wall, a hand on his hip, the other on his chin. Rodin? Sagan is too unaffected for such conceit. The camera loves him, but he is oblivious to its presence.
To see Sagan with Contador is something. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but concern over whether the pair could work together now seems laughable. Firstly, they are team-mates, not rivals. Sagan is not expected to win the races Contador is, and vice versa. More subtly, Sagan is the lightning rod for the attention that Contador dislikes. The introvert and the extrovert play well together. They snigger like schoolboys at the endless press conferences, and who can blame them? Sublimely gifted athletes reduced to mannequins, they laugh at the absurdity of it all. On the bike, it is all business.
Cast your mind back to July and the first road stage of the Tour de France. The peloton has been cut to ribbons by the crosswinds lashing across the Zeeland sea defences, and while Quintana and Nibali have been cut adrift, Sagan has chaperoned Contador with impressive fidelity and both are in the lead group with a little under 15km remaining. Then, a puncture.
Sagan drops back, but not for long. His ride back to the peloton, completed in what feels like about 10 seconds, is extraordinary. He returns to the sharp end in time to contest the finishing sprint, seeing off Cavendish, but losing out to Greipel. He is second, again, but this seems barely worthy of mention. What are his recollections?
“Cycling is luck, bad luck. You can’t be thinking about that. You are in the race. What happens, happens. You have to leave off thinking about a lot of things that could happen or not. I punctured and waited for the car, which was very fast.” He pauses, hard pressed seemingly to find anything further of interest to say on the subject. “The mechanic was very fast.”
With nothing more to say on the matter, we move on. How about stage 16 of the Tour, and his astonishing descent of the treacherous Col de Manse, a road that Armstrong in the Teflon years failed to negotiate, and on which Froome and Contador nearly came to grief more recently? He is mildly more interested. In summary: no one else wanted to work so he went alone, and by the time he had Ruben Plaza in sight, it was too late.
His dissection of his first victory of the year – achieved on the sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico after a run of 19 second places – ends in a similarly abrupt fashion. The roar of defiance as he crossed the line in Porto Sant’Elpidio ahead of Gerald Ciolek and Jens Debuscherre was primal. Was he shouting out demons? Sagan shrugs.
“I did Qatar and Oman and had a lot of second places. In Tirreno, it was the last [flat] stage, and by Tirreno, it’s time to start winning, you know? The Classics were very close. The first, second and third stage, you don’t know how you are, if you are in good shape or not. You are there, but not winning. And then the last [road] stage was like, ‘Finally, I’m ready; I have the condition and I’m ready for the Classics’.” He pauses. “That’s it.”
I roll the dice a final time: tell me about Richmond. He looks up. Eye contact. A small smile. “It was something very different.”
“The feeling what I had when I crossed the line, only a few people can understand. I was speaking with Philippe Gilbert, [about] how he felt when he won. He said the same thing: nobody can understand. It’s like a dream. All the problems you had, or things you were thinking, are just gone.” Now there is a gleam in his eye. “I’ve never taken drugs, but maybe it was like taking a drug, no?”
Our conversation continues through various subjects: Slovakia, Monaco, how his talent is perceived in the peloton and by the media, pressure. Sagan is good value, by turns thoughtful, funny, clever. We wrap things up and he pads away, stretching, sipping from a water bottle, joking in Italian with Tinkoff-Saxo’s commercial manager Gabriele Uboldi.
We are left with the impression that Sagan is remarkable not only for his physical abilities. The mantle of the rainbow jersey will bring still more exposure, and it will be interesting to see how he copes. He accepts that he will always be under pressure to deliver results, but questions how much more media work he can fit into his life and still have time for bike racing. Peter Sagan, World Champion sounds fitting. Cycling might be set to enter a golden period.
Rouleur attended the Tinkoff-Saxo camp as a guest of Croatia Tourism for the official launch of the 2016 Tour of Croatia.