Peter Sagan does not strike me as the sort of person who, when picking out his outfit for the day, would select from his suitcase a t-shirt with his own name emblazoned across the front. He might have a reputation as one of the few true “characters” in the peloton but in person he doesn’t come across as an attention-seeker, publicity hound or natural self-promotor.
And yet here he is, at the front of a small room packed to the back full of people, wearing a t-shirt with the word SAGAN emblazoned across it. It hardly makes him Kanye, but it is incongruous.
The straightforward assumption is that it’s an ad for his personal brand, although you’d think simply being him would do that quite well. Plus the t-shirt doesn’t appear to be for sale in the apparel section of his website. You can buy a Peter Sagan-branded shower head if you want one, though.
I wonder if, less than an act of immodesty, it’s meant to help the likes of Chris Evans – on whose Radio 2 show he appeared for three minutes earlier in the day and who is understood to be more a fan of the old golf – identify the individual in front of him. Cyclists in civilian clothes are oddly anonymous beings as it is. With Sagan’s cover girl locks replaced by a hipper, more expensive haircut, even I might have missed him in passing.
Stick a pair of brown brogues on his feet, a pint in his hand and park him outside one of the pubs on nearby St John’s Street and he’d blend right in with the young city set.
Because despite being the most famous cyclist in the world, Peter Sagan is not really famous. He doesn’t figure in ESPN’s 2018 list of 100 most famous athletes. The rankings are based on how much an individual is searched for online, how much money they receive from brand endorsements, and the size of their social media following. Number 100 is the Indian tennis player (doubles) Sania Mirza.
It’s that last metric which most lets him down. While Mirza has 12.5 million followers across a few different networks, in Twitter terms Peter Sagan is roughly the equal of Calum Chambers. Chambers is a Premier League footballer who appears not to play football very much, and who is currently on loan to Fulham from Arsenal.
In London, home to as many pro cycling fans as the rest of the UK put together, not only could Peter Sagan comfortably take the tube without being recognised, he could probably even ride rings around Richmond Park with only the keenest beans batting an eyelid. The Slovakian champion’s jersey might marginally raise the recognition rate, but he’s still more likely to attract abuse from the local etiquette narcs for pedaling in a way they don’t like.
Still, on a Thursday evening at the hansgrohe showroom in central London, at the end of a day spent gripping and grinning to promote his new book, Peter Sagan is the starriest of star attractions. The attendees at this sponsorship-soirée-cum-book-signing-slash-Q&A-comma-press-meet-and-greet are 100% here because of him. They hang on his every answer and laugh (more sympathetically than sycophantically) at the least amusing thing he says. He’s not not charming but the reality is – in English at least – Peter Sagan is closer to curious-funny than Seinfeld-funny.
The event has the feel of an exclusive, intimate gig, but he wouldn’t fill O2 Arena anyway. In a cycling sense, Sagan is a rock star. In a rock star sense he’s playing to a sparse, bleary-eyed crowd on the Jazz World Stage at Glastonbury.
He also comes across as one of the few who realises that this is all (at least) a bit silly. Not that he’s sending up his interrogator, Matt Barbet, or taking the piss out of the audience. It’s more that he’s bemused by the idea that anyone would be interested in what he has to say. Think the Emperor’s New Clothes, but the opposite (and some clothes rather than none).
But as we say, Sagan has written a book, sort of, and has contractual obligations to his employers. He could do the bare minimum and the attendees would adore him anyway, but he offers more and it’s appreciated. I’ve been to corporate gigs before where the band don’t even try to disguise their contempt for the audience. This isn’t one of those.
Sagan answers the questions efficiently, seldom offering more than he needs to, but his responses are no less thoughtful for that. He’s not as guarded as you might expect and there are few that seem like stock replies.
Take Sagan’s explanation of how he ended up at Bora-Hansgrohe following the closure of Tinkoff: Although there were discussions with bigger teams than Bora, none would grant his request that they also take a number of riding and non-riding staff of his acquaintance.
Last year Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevere told Rouleur that he couldn’t have signed the World Champion without letting go of multiple members of staff across the organisation. Riders of course, but soigneurs, assistants and the miscellanous “I wonder what that person’s actual job is” types, too. As well as his brother, Juraj, Sagan’s Slovakian on-bike entourage included Erik Baška and the recently-retired Michael Kolář.
At that time Bora-Hansgrohe (then Bora-Argon 18) were in the process of making the transition to the WorldTour. They had to increase capacity to cope with the heavier raceload anyway and could afford to take on all of Sagan’s people.
Sagan’s requirements could be taken for the demands of a diva, but he seems sincere when he says it’s about looking after the people who have always been there to support him.
“Without my brother I am not here now,” Sagan says of his elder sibling. “He is always by my side… I have maybe had more luck.”
PR puff? Perhaps. Faux modesty? Could be. Or maybe there’s a genuine maturity there that belies the wider perception of him as a wheelie-ing, tattooed, bum-pinching rebel without a cause. Are natural sporting talent and genetic fortune really different things? The reflective Peter Sagan doesn’t seem to believe they are.
The niche nature of his celebrity is summed up in an anecdote Sagan relates of an encounter from earlier in the day. Upon exiting a (non-hansgrohe) bathroom, a man heading in had read his t-shirt and stopped to ask why he was wearing a reference to American astronomer, Carl Sagan. Because no, most people don’t know who he is. And what a relief that must be.