An excerpt from Peter Sagan’s new book, My World.
The Olympics are amazing, aren’t they? What else, across the whole of life, culture, and the entire human experience, can bring together so many people from across the globe? I remember racing home from school to see Slovakian athletes going up against the world’s best at the games in Atlanta or Sydney, and the snowy, dark nights screaming at the TV as our ice hockey heroes competed in the Winter Olympics.
Olympic road cycling is odd, though. To begin with, the peculiarly unique situation in cycling where a team sport gives up an individual winner is a difficult concept that sits uncomfortably alongside the other feats of personal achievement on show. Track cycling works well, but the format of road cycling is a lot less applicable to the Olympic setup than many of the other sports represented.
There’s also the matter of cycling’s late arrival at the party. Atlanta in 1996 was the first time that professional cyclists were invited to compete in the Olympics, meaning that the Olympic champion has been viewed as a respected curiosity rather than the solid plank of cycling history that attends the world championships, which hardly seems fair. You don’t even get a jersey. I know the first Olympic champion of the modern era, Pascal Richard, ran into trouble with the IOC when he tried to have the Olympic rings incorporated into his team kit. Sammy Sanchez, the winner in Beijing, came up with the idea of adding a bit of gold to his kit, a compromise that has stuck and keeps the IOC off the champion’s back.
I went to London in 2012, optimistic that I could produce something in the road race. Team Great Britain team had spent the preceding months telling the world how they were going to control the race, to give Mark Cavendish the best chance of adding an Olympic title to his world’s victory. Jan Valach, the DS of the Slovakian squad, thought that they would find this very difficult in the latter stages with the small team sizes and the unchallenging circuit, but they were very welcome to try, and I agreed with him. As did all the other teams as it turned out. I basically dozed my way round the English countryside for a few hours, 10 times up the same shallow hill, thinking that if I kept Cav in sight I’d be OK. In the run-in back to London, the GB team, tired from a long summer’s day on the sharp end of the bunch, understandably began to wilt, the race fractured, and Alexander Vinokourov managed to clip off to win for Kazakhstan. It was definitely a case of a hundred riders with a hundred stories and a hundred opportunities as we approached those final stages. You will know that I’m fond of describing sprints as a bit of a lottery . . . well, this race was like the euromillions. The only one of the big favorites to try to take the race to the home country was Spartacus himself, Fabian Cancellara, and his effort was short-lived when he misjudged a corner in Richmond Park and hit the deck.
The race was one thing. The Olympic experience was on a whole new level though, and not in the way you might think.
The road-race disciplines were the first events of the whole Games. While those of us who were involved were doing our best to prepare quietly and professionally, the Olympic Village was crammed, nearly bursting with excited young people. The opening ceremony was that same weekend—in fact, I think it was the night before our event—and as we prepared for the road race, we were surrounded by thousands of young athletes from across the world completely immersed in one of the most explosive nights of their lives. Outside of my bubble, I would have loved it. I would have been caught up in their joy and expectation. What a fantastic thing to happen to anybody. But it could never have been described as ideal preparation for one of the biggest events in a professional athlete’s calendar.
So the Olympic Village was like a high school prom scene in a Hollywood movie. The air was thick with teenage hormones and, most incongruous of all for what is supposedly a paragon of modern sporting excellence, the heady scent of ten thousand Big Macs. The Games, and the Village, were sponsored by McDonald’s. It was the Supersize Me Games. Crazy. I love visiting London, and one of the best things about the city is the quality and variety of the food available. Some of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in are in London, plus the general standard of snacks, supermarket fare, and even street food is great. Yet here I was living in a 24-hour drive-thru crammed with teenagers all trying to see how many McNuggets they could get in their mouths at one time.
I’m sure that when Marlon is a bit older I will love seeing his face when I tell him that I went to the Olympics in London, but frankly it was an experience that, on the whole, I was in no rush to repeat.
Rio 2016 was looming on the horizon. The road-race circuit featured a pretty significant climb that would seriously reduce my chances of winning. Another huge mark in the “cons” column was the memory of Cav’s experience four years prior and the awareness that this time around it could well be me riding round and round with a hundred people on my wheel waiting for something to happen.
In the middle of what was beginning to feel like a pretty gloomy conversation with Gabriele and Lomba about all this stuff, we came up with what felt like a stroke of genius. Forget the Olympic Village. Forget the Olympic road race. We’d have a summer to remember chilling out on a Brazilian beach and do the mountain bike race instead. Yes, that’s right, the Olympic mountain bike race. The chill atmosphere of MTB racing was something I hadn’t experienced since I was a junior. And there was none of this ambiguity about how important the Olympics were to mountain biking. It’s the daddy, pure and simple. Turn up, become a mountain biking legend, then disappear into the sunset, all in the space of one afternoon. Like the Lone Ranger. With Gabri as Tonto.
Why not? I love mountain biking. Come on, how hard could it be? Why so serious?
The first and biggest hurdle was getting Oleg Tinkov to agree to it. He was my boss, after all. He paid my wages. We knew by now that he was going to wind the team up at the end of 2016, but he wanted to be remembered, to be missed, and that meant going out with the biggest bang possible.
The shape of 2016 had been warped, as it often is in an Olympic year. The Games were to be held in August; then the Vuelta a Espana would straddle August and September, with the world’s pushed right back to the middle of October. They were set to be held in Doha, and the extreme heat of the Gulf States in summer provided another reason for the event to be held so late in the calendar.
Long gone are the days where Jacques Anquetil or Bernard Hinault could turn up at Paris–Nice in the spring, and then race to win every week until the Tour of Lombardy in the autumn. There are many factors to explain this. Expectation is higher, even at the small races that used to be regarded as little more than training rides or exhibition events. The average speed of a stage on a Grand Tour has gone through the roof, largely because of the greater importance placed today on getting somebody into a break. In the twentieth century, the first hour of a long stage was a chance to chat with old friends in the peloton, catch up on the gossip, or work on your tan lines. Now this first hour is an insane free-for-all that takes place at the same sort of speed you’d expect in the last 20 kilometers of a stage, not the first.
Attention is so much higher now. Years ago there wouldn’t have been any television coverage until the last hour of the biggest races and none at all at smaller ones. Apart from the Tour de France and the Monuments, the press corps could usually share a car to get from start to finish, and they’d be stopping for a decent roadside lunch too. Sean Yates told me stories of his first years in the peloton as a rider in the 1980s, when the entire team would hide in a village somewhere on a circuit and then rejoin the race as it approached its closing stages!
We shouldn’t gloss over the fact that drugs in cycling have shaped the racing too. Yes, there were cheats at the top looking for the smallest advantage over their rivals, but there were dozens, maybe hundreds more, for whom illegal substances meant the difference between getting through the day or abandoning. I’m not going to suggest that the fight against drugs is won yet, but without doubt, the widespread use of drugs on an industrial scale thankfully ended before my days in the professional peloton, and you can see the difference in the shape of races. Look at races from the seventies, eighties, and the current decade, and you’ll see something that had virtually disappeared in the 1990s and 2000s . . . you can see riders getting tired!
There is a new generation of directeurs sportifs and coaches in the sport who are also helping to clean up the sport. When Yates became a DS and rode with the team on a training ride, he was looked at as a curiosity by his car-driving peers, but as my career has progressed, riding with Yates, Patxi Villa, Steven de Jongh, and now Sylwester Szmyd has become the norm. The general consensus among these guys is that for their predecessors, once their career was done, no way would they want to go through all that again, whether they were taking illegal enhancements themselves or just trying to keep up with those who were. These guys love riding their bikes and are able to ride comfortably alongside their team in a way that suggests strongly that the sport is significantly cleaner than it was.
Anyway, I know I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, but what I’m trying to say is that you simply can’t turn up at every race and expect to compete, and when your targets are as far apart as Gent–Wevelgem in March and the world’s in October with the Tour of California, the Tour de France, and the Olympics or
Vuelta thrown in, you have to plan your year with extreme care, or you get burnt out.
With this in mind, we went to Oleg with our plan. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about this before, but what the hell, eh? Why so serious?
Hey Oleg, wouldn’t it be cool to have the Olympic MTB champion on your team? Wow! History or what? What Oleg wanted more than anything else was to end the season as the world’s number 1 team. And the Olympic MTB race was not the place to pick up UCI road-ranking points. He wanted me at the Vuelta, which began in Galicia the day before the Olympic MTB race in Rio de Janeiro. That was a bit of a stretch.
Oleg, listen. I’m not going to be able to compete for the general classification at the Vuelta. It’s got 10 summit finishes, the first of which is on stage 3, and stage 1 is a team time trial, so basically I’m not even within a shout of a few days in the leader’s red jersey. In total, there are probably about four stages that I could seriously contend for. How many UCI points for a Vuelta stage win? Six. If it’s UCI points we’re hunting, it would be better to go to Canada again. Two proper WorldTour races, bags of UCI points. And much better preparation for Doha. The Vuelta is going to leave me exhausted, a month short of the world’s.
He had a think about it. I knew there was going to be a bit of bargaining. That’s how we do things. We can’t just accept a proposition; there has to be negotiation. And that is what Oleg was bound to come back with.
“OK, Peter,” began Oleg. “You can do the Olympic road race instead of the Vuelta.”
“Oh, no, I don’t want to do that. I’ve got no chance; it’s too hilly. I might as well go to the Vuelta than do that.”
“OK, this is the deal. You can do the Olympic MTB race. You can miss the Vuelta. But I want two Tour de France stage wins, two wins from the two Canadian races, and you do GP Plouay and the Eneco Tour.”
The Eneco Tour was ideal prep for Doha, a week of good-quality racing in Belgium and Holland in late September. But Plouay? God, I hate that race. Brittany in September. Whenever I’ve visited, it’s been like Glasgow in November. It’s up and down all day in the wind and rain on a nasty circuit, and then you lose.
“Take it or leave it, Peter.”
“I’ll take it, Oleg.”
We shook hands.
I had another little addition up my sleeve, but I wasn’t going to tell Oleg about that just yet. I’d try to knock off the first part of his deal and then see how the scene was before I rocked the boat.
The rest of this chapter can be found in Peter Sagan’s new memoir, My World. Visit velopress.com/sagan to purchase the book or to read more excerpts.
My World is Peter Sagan’s highly anticipated memoir, which takes fans behind the scenes of the sport’s talented winner and biggest personality.