According to the invitation, we were gathering to celebrate Peter Sagan’s 33rd birthday on the rest day of the Vuelta a San Juan. But upon arriving at the Autodrome Villicum outside of San Juan, it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary press conference.
Underneath the press tent a video recapping Sagan’s many career highlights looped repeatedly. When Sagan finally arrived, with all of his longtime team-mates and staff wearing Sagan branded t-shirts, there was an imminent sense of finality.
Sitting down between Maciej Bodnar and Daniel Oss, his two most faithful teammates, and his sports director, mechanic, massage therapist, as well as his manager and press officer, Sagan went straight to the point.
“Thank you very much everyone for coming here to my birthday and I think you can already guess what I would like to announce tonight. We have all of my group here and I would like to say that the moment arrived. I’ve decided that I would like to finish my last year with WorldTour races.”
Sagan insisted that he was not retiring from the sport, as he plans to focus on mountain biking in 2024, with the Paris Olympic Games serving as his final objective. He even added that we may well see him in select road races as preparation for his off-road objectives next year. But the Peter Sagan that we know today, will finish at the end of the 2023 season.
“The time arrived,” he said to a group of journalists after the official announcement. “When I was in my 20s I said that I wanted to finish my career in my 30s, and now I am 33. Also, I always said that I wanted to finish my career with the mountain bike. I started my career on the mountain bike, and I would like to finish with the mountain bike. This gives me a chance to try something that I really like for a year and then we will see.”
But while sporting interests played a big factor in his decision, a final factor was more personal. “And there is Marlon,” Sagan said, referring to his son. “I have already lost him so much over the past five years being in and out, in and out. It is important for me to spend time with him and see life from a different angle, not just as a cyclist.”
But while Sagan is clear that 2023 will be his final season as a road cyclist, he is committed to racing for victory until the end of the season. Already it is evident here in San Juan, that we are seeing Sagan at, or near, his best. He has been in the mix in every stage so far. After putting his TotalEnergies team on the front of the 2,200-meter climb, dropping most of the sprinters in the race, he finished second on stage four. No, make no doubt about it, Sagan is still very good.
And yet, this was still an emotional moment.
Next to the press tent the Argentinian band La Beriso was rocking to a full house in an outdoor concert. When Sagan went on stage between sets, the crowd broke out singing Happy Birthday.
Despite the overwhelming noise from the concert, Sagan’s inner circle was in a reflective mood.
“For me it is a very emotional moment, but his decision was clear and I support him,” said Jan Valach, a former Slovak professional who has served as Sagan’s longtime sports director. “His career was not super long, but really nice. And I think he had many nice moments for the people.”
“Really, I still can’t believe it,” said Mindaugas Goncaras, his longtime mechanic known simply as Gonchar. “Of course you know that Peter will one day stop, and I am grateful to him for all those years. It was really enjoyable, with a lot of emotion. I am happy for him with his decision.”
“Ok I have had time to digest the news,” said Italian Daniel Oss, who has spent countless hours racing with Sagan since the two were team-mates on the Cannondale team. “The decision took time and he really came by it day-by-day, but the decision has been made. But I can see in his eyes the last couple of days that he is happy and I am happy because I can see that he is happy. I can only say thank you to Peter.
Sagan joined the TotalEnergies team in 2022 (Photo by Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images)
But while Sagan is announcing his retirement at the beginning of the season, he wants to make the most of 2023. Finishing his career with a big victory has always been a goal. Milan-San Remo is his first major objective, as Sagan would love to add the Italian Monument to his Classics collection, one that already boasts Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. And then of course there is the Tour de France, not to mention a final World Championships, which he won an unprecedented three consecutive times in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
“To be honest I haven’t seen him this good in years,” said Gonchar. “He is so focused and yet so relaxed, really enjoying what he is doing.”
Sagan says flatly: “I definitely have the legs to win a big race again and I am not going to just ride through my last year.”
Even if he scores another Monument, another Worlds title or another green jersey, Sagan insists that his decision is final. “Nothing is going to change my mind. Different things are important for me," he said. "There is not only the bicycle in my life. It was never my dream to race as a professional rider until I was 40 or 50. So I think the time is now.”
For Sagan the Olympic mountain bike race offers a way for him to come full circle. But he insists that riding the Games is not about chasing a gold medal. “If I can finish my career in the Paris Olympic Games it is going to be nice for me. It’s about what I want to do. Next year is an Olympic year and I want to do it for me.”
In many ways, Sagan’s announcement sets up the perfect scenario, one of the long goodbye. Fans can enjoy him racing full out in all of the big races this year before his final swansong in Paris in 2024. But the timeline is set for an end to one of the most storied careers in modern cycling as Sagan will always be remembered, not just for the races he won, but the manner in which he won them.