"PETER AND THE WOLF AT THE DOOR" - Ned Boulting
Remember Peter Sagan?
He was that inarticulate-articulate bloke who started to fashion his hair into as many outlandishly differing styles as he discovered variants of tactics required to finish second in bike races. Then he started winning lots of bicycle races.
He was Forrest Gump, Wolverine, John Travolta. He was Peter. Peter Sagan.
I’ll never forget the time he was introduced onto the sign-on podium in front of a vast crowd in The Headrow in Leeds, on the morning of the “Grandest of All Grand Départs”.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome onto the stage, from Slovakia, and riding for Cannondale, Peter Sagaaaaaan!”
When he finally made his way onto the stage, he looked as shifty as anyone could be expected to look if they’d spent the night before the race with their hair in a plastic bag to keep the green hair dye from running down his neck.
“Peter, what message do you have, at the start of the 2014 Tour de France, for these massive crowds here in Yorkshire?”
And Peter, looking blankly out at the thousands that stared smilingly back at him, simply said, “Hello”.
And then the great man buggered off, with his bouffant hair bouncing.
I used to enjoy interviewing him. It was a sheer joy, particularly in 2014, when he set a world record for finishing in second place in every single stage. Ever.
“Peter, you came second!”
“I know. Today I have unluck.”
Equally, I loved to ambush him off the bus at the start of the race… “Peter, today looks like a day for Peter Sagan!”
“I know. I think every day is a day for Peter Sagan.” Then he’d do that funny little nasal laugh.
His best line, though, came in 2016, when, as the reigning World Champion he also finally took the yellow jersey on the Tour on that rainy, windy day when the road led North to Cherbourg.
“Peter, how will you feel if you lose the yellow jersey tomorrow?”
“Well, then I wear the green jersey. And if I lose that, then I only have the rainbow jersey.” And then the nose-chuckle.
Anyway, all that Sagan stuff is by way of a certain whiff of nostalgia. Because, so far in 2019, he’s been (dare I say it) like a normal bike rider. That is to say, he’s been brilliant, obviously, but…somehow normal. A gastro-intestinal thing knocked him back a bit in early March, for sure, and maybe that explains a lot. But something else seems to be missing, too. His aura, perhaps.
A lot of it may be to do with his Slovakian national champion’s jersey. It is, when glimpsed from a moto, or a helicopter, confusingly close to the world champion’s bands he wore for three consecutive years from 2015 to last autumn. Even though they are only red and blue, the colours remind you of the rainbow jersey, just as Tesco’s own brand beans look like Heinz. There used to be 57 different Peter Sagans.
And then there’s Julian Alaphilippe. Him: That bloke who can climb, and sprint, smile and thrill. That instinctive racer, whose panache knows no bounds, and is enjoying a golden spell. Where the Frenchman looks lithe, quicksilver and deadly, Sagan is left (so far, at least) looking heavy, and predictable in comparison.
Of course, this is all extremely relative. He is a victim of his own outrageously high standards, and he falls on the sword of what we expect of him. But my judgment is just an expression of the racing I’ve seen so far, and they are very different racers. Put Alaphilippe in a normal bunch sprint, and Sagan, even the 2019 version, still beats him 19 times out of 20.
And let’s not forget, as Sagan gets his Classics campaign up to decent diesel speed, that Alaphilippe, having scored so many successes so far this calendar year, simply sits these weeks out until the Ardennes offer their wooded slopes up for him to exploit. They are not the same riders, as I have said.
But their Venn diagrams will overlap. The most intriguing subset of all is a bicycle race called The Tour de France, where they will be both be hunting down stages, and that green jersey that has been Sagan’s hitherto by right. The battle for the hearts of the world’s cycling romantics will be just as intriguing. July might see a new crowd favourite emerge. But it might equally well not.
Oh, and after that, there’s an uphill finish in Harrogate to see who gets to wear the rainbow bands at the end of 2019.
I’m looking forward to that. Hope you are. That’s why we watch, isn’t it?