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Peter Sagan interview: Tinkoff & Kilimanjaro

Peter Sagan interview
James Witts
21 Apr 2015

2014 wasn't the year it was hyped up to be for Peter Sagan. He tells us his aims for 2015 and why he moved to Tinkoff Saxo.

Page 1 of 2Peter Sagan interview: Tinkoff & Kilimanjaro

It’s early December (2014) and Cyclist is in Gran Canaria to meet cycling’s hottest property, Peter Sagan, as he settles into his new team, Tinkoff-Saxo. The 24-year-old (he turned 25 in January 2015) seems very relaxed, confident and happy to talk – but our photoshoot has unexpectedly
hit a snag thanks to UCI regulations.

‘Unfortunately, we can’t have photos of Peter in his Tinkoff kit go public until 1st January 2015,’ says Tinkoff’s communications director, Pierre Orphanidis. ‘He’s contractually obliged to wear Cannondale apparel until 31st December 2014. So we must remain in this room for the pictures.’ Danish journalists prowl outside in the hotel corridor. The year before, they were haranguing team manager Bjarne Riis over historic doping allegations. Now they’re here for Peter and it has created a cagey atmosphere. ‘One online image of Peter in Tinkoff kit and the team will be in trouble,’ warns Orphanidis. Sagan’s stock is so high that our interview is being carefully monitored by Orphanidis, who hovers nearby. Tinkoff-Saxo certainly knows the value of managing exposure. As soon as the last verses of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ have been sung, Tinkoff’s PR team will go into overdrive and release a slew of videos of Sagan wheelieing and bunny hopping his new Specialized around a golf course, adorned in Tinkoff-Saxo kit. [Of course it's out now and you can see it here: Peter Sagan on the golf course]

Team owner Oleg Tinkov realises the value of communication – something that has helped him to amass a personal fortune of $1.4billion, according to figures in Forbes. Back in March 2014, Cyclist interviewed Tinkov at Tirreno-Adriatico and he knew then that Sagan was the man to deliver the Tinkoff brand to a global audience. ‘It’s not signed yet but there’s a big chance that we will [sign him],’ the Russian had told us. ‘Why not? He’s the best rider in the peloton in terms of image, wins and value.’

Cannondale

Tinkov almost got his man in the autumn of 2013 when he came close to buying Team Cannondale. That didn’t come off so, as is the wont of a Russian billionaire, he evolved from main sponsor to owner of the Russian team. Twelve months later he finally had Sagan, the Slovakian securing a reported €4million per annum for three years. Young, handsome, a boy’s sense of fun – it seems that Sagan is a mirror image of a young Tinkov. And he, too, understands the importance of communication.

Peter Sagan cannondale

‘It’s important for everybody – for the team, for me, for people – to deal with the press,’ he says. ‘It’s all part of the process and I’m happy with that.’ The perception of Sagan as a ‘funster’ is exacerbated by him now living in Monaco, though he emphasises he’s ‘never been clubbing or to the casino’. I’m unsure whether he says this for my benefit or Orphanidis’s, but there’s no doubting that, despite winning the green jersey for a third time, 2014 was the toughest year of his professional career by his own high standards. His palmares remains devoid of a major Classic victory and, in all, he won ‘only’ eight times.

Several times in 2014 Sagan was left exposed by Cannondale, with little domestique support at the sharp end of races

‘It’s not a problem,’ says Sagan. ‘I have belief in myself.’ It could be a problem though, according to sports psychologist Vic Thompson. Thompson has worked with many elite and recreational sportsmen and warns of the dangers of winning too much, too soon. ‘If an athlete achieves significant early success, they can receive a lot of positive attention, compliments and comments about how good they are and how great they will become. This can lead to a “softer” approach to training and racing, resulting in sub-par performances.’ (See box, below opposite).

‘Yes, sometimes training is boring, sometimes good,’ retorts Sagan. ‘You have good days, bad days, but I’m focused. There’s a lot of core and gym work at this time of year; plenty of bodyweight exercises and a lot of squats. They’re very important. I’ve always been very competitive. That’s why the training is fine but it has always been about the racing for me.’

Tinkoff Saxo

You suspect Sagan’s move to Tinkoff-Saxo comes at the right time. Beyond the fiscal remuneration that’s up there with Alberto Contador’s, he’s joined one of the strongest teams on the WorldTour. In 2014, Contador won the Vuelta, the team won two stages of the Tour de France, and Rafal Majka won the King of the Mountains jersey. 

‘This is a stronger team, yes,’ says Sagan. ‘There are many strong riders on this team, so I’ll have a greater chance. It’s also great that [Ivan] Basso’s come to the team. I’m very good friends with Ivan. I’ve been riding with him since we joined Liquigas.’ Several times in 2014 Sagan was left exposed by Cannondale, with little domestique support at the sharp end of races. Exposure shouldn’t be an issue in 2015. Sagan will line up with uber-domestique Daniele Bennati and the experienced Michael Rogers, alongside fellow new recruits Pavel Brutt from Katusha and Robert Kiserlovski from Trek, both durable riders who’ll offer valuable support. Sagan’s brother, Juraj, also joins from Cannondale, and could be the most valuable signing, offering familiarity and trust in Sagan’s very public world. ‘It’s important to have my brother here, he says. ‘When I started on the bike, I always trained with my brother. It’s very good to have family with me – very important.’

Mountain to climb

The ink had barely dried on his three-year contract before Sagan and his brother had experienced team bonding Tinkoff style. This year Bjarne Riis dispensed with paintball and raft building, and instead his employees climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The Dane is notorious for his brutal training camps. In the past, his pupils have driven blindfold, clambered up poles and navigated the frozen waters of Denmark. Ascending Kilimanjaro, the expedition faced the worst weather conditions seen there in a decade. ‘I was OK up until the 5,000m mark,’ says Sagan. ‘That’s when I began to have problems with headaches and balance. At the top I vomited. It was like having a hangover.’

Talking of hangovers, I enquire as to how Sagan’s induction ceremony went the night before. The older, wiser Sagan remains tight-lipped about what went on or what was drunk. There’ll also be no chance of a celebratory drink at his season opener, the Tour of Qatar, which is followed soon after by the Tour of Oman.

Peter Sagan portrait

‘I’ll then race Tirreno-Adriatico [11th March], before heading into the Classics.’ For Sagan they will start with Milan-San Remo on 22nd March, before he looks to defend his E3 Harelbeke semi-Classic title [27th March]. Two days later it’s Gent-Wevelgem, the ‘semi’ that remains the biggest one-day win of his career to date (in 2013). ‘It all went well that day. I felt good from the moment I woke up,’ he recalls. ‘And the conditions really suited me with a couple of punchy climbs and miles of flat terrain. And it was cold. So cold.’

It certainly played to Sagan’s strengths. Held in freezing conditions, a group of 11 went clear with 60km remaining of a shortened race. With 4km to go, Sagan broke free, going solo to take victory. He has never been allowed to pull away in the big Classics, however, the peloton monitoring his every pedal stroke, every twitch, every intention, with the diligence of an owl watching its prey.

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Page 1 of 2Peter Sagan interview: Tinkoff & Kilimanjaro