An excerpt from Peter Sagan’s new book, My World.
September 24, 2017
For the 10th time today, the masts of the tall ships loom up on our right. The scent in my nostrils changes as it always does at this point. From the damp cool of a Scandinavian weekend afternoon to the tang of the harbor, flavored with the smoky promise of dozens of fast-food grills selling every kind of edible meat or fish that you can cram into some bread and sell to a hungry cycling fan.
This is the long sweeping left-hand bend that separates the waterfront from the colorful townhouses that characterize this beautiful old port. The first time we came along here, it was at quite a gentle pace, with barely 40 kilometers ridden. That must have been shortly after 11:00 a.m. this morning. The next half a dozen or so times we came past those rocking masts and chattering rigging, the intensity had risen enough to mean there were fewer cyclists hanging on each time. There were nearly 200 of us this morning; now, after the last two or three hard laps of this hilly little circuit in Bergen, there look to be around 60 of us left. A Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) official starts clanging furiously at a big old brass bell to tell us that there is one lap to go. I’m suddenly acutely aware of the No. 1 on my back. It’s now four in the afternoon, and I’ve probably got about half an hour left as UCI World Champion.
The race was really confusing.
It had started slow, which suited me. I hadn’t eaten or drunk properly for a couple of days since having a ridiculously badly timed upset stomach at home in Monaco on Friday. And that had followed a week off the bike due to a flu virus. I don’t want to moan about being sick because it doesn’t happen that often, but suffice it to say the last month was not the preparation I’d had in mind going into one of the highlight events of the racing calendar. I’d been world champion for the past two years, and there was every chance that I was going to lose the UCI rainbow jersey today even if I’d been in splendid health. Most people were predicting that the circuit would be too difficult for a rider they considered to be a “sprinter who could get over a hill” rather than a true puncheur like Julian Alaphilippe, Philippe Gilbert, or my predecessor as world champion, Michal Kwiatkowski (or Kwiato, as we call him). They also thought that I would be too well marked to succeed a third time, with the bigger teams whistling “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to themselves. In addition, the smart money believed that those same teams would swamp our little Slovakian band of brothers when we needed to control the race.
A break had gone away early. The race began in a little town not far away before settling into these dozen circuits of downtown Bergen, the harborside, the seafront, Salmon Hill. So many races go through a desperate scramble in the first hour as everybody tries to get themselves into the day-long race-shaping break that will inevitably be hauled back by the strongest riders, but fortunately for my churning stomach that never happened. The break formed. It went. By the time they were 10 minutes up the road, the rest of us 200 or so hopefuls started riding a bit, and by then I was beginning to feel like a bike rider again.
I should have been here for the last 10 days or so. I had been planning to hook up with my BORA-hansgrohe teammates for the team time trial a week before today. The TTT is a relatively new addition to the world cycling championships roster, and it’s a bit weird as you still ride for your regular professional team, rather than your country, as in every other event at the world’s. That opportunity to wave a patriotic flag rather than wear the baseball cap of a bank, bike company, or a kitchen exhaust fan manufacturer is what gives the world’s such a draw for fans. Also, as the racing takes place over a circuit rather than point-to-point, it’s a much more watchable event for the fans, and they come from all over the world to shout, cheer, drink, and—hopefully—celebrate. Slovakians are very good at all these testing disciplines.
BORA-hansgrohe had claimed a top-ten finish in my absence, and my Slovakian teammates were expecting to be doing the road race without me too. I’d hauled my sorry, sweaty ass out of bed and flown out of Nice yesterday morning, spending most of the 2,500 kilometers in the toilet.
I’d been pretty quiet on the start line, glad, and, frankly, amazed just to be there. As we passed over the finish line for the first time when we reached the Bergen circuit, I turned to my brother Juraj riding alongside me, both of us resplendent in our blue, red, and white Slovakia skinsuits. “Take a good look,” I told him. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing this line again.”
But the steady pace was good for me, and so was the mild temperature. A year ago, I’d won this title in searing heat in Qatar. I couldn’t see my dehydrated body getting away with that again; Norway was a lot more accommodating.
I buried myself in the heart of the bunch. It was decreasing in numbers gradually as the race went on. The world’s always has a high dropout rate for a number of reasons. One: A lot of nations send riders to make up the numbers to keep their foot in the door with the powers that be and try to ensure they don’t lose those places in subsequent years. Two: Many riders are there to control, chase, or get in breaks in the first half of the race for their team leaders, and their jobs are complete before the real action begins. Three: It’s a really, really long race—267 kilometers in 2017—at the end of a long season, and you have to ride past the welcoming, warm, dry pit area many times. You can feel your handlebars begin to turn in of their own accord, the magnetic pull increasing with each lap. You might even be able to see your hotel from the route.
It was fairly steady until about five laps to go. Then the Dutch guys all got on the front, and everything became distinctly uncomfortable. The Netherlands always seem to bring seemingly unending numbers of powerful horses to the world’s, and if you’re in the bunch and you see what seems like dozens of 80-kilogram six-foot-plus musclemen in orange jerseys get on the front, it’s always time to take a deep breath and grit your teeth. The “fasten seatbelts” sign goes on in your head. You know it’s going to get bumpy.
Paradoxically, nobody from Holland has won this race in my lifetime. But while they might not have been kings for a long time, they have the ability to be kingmakers, inadvertently or not.
I’d been through a few tests by this time, and mentally I counted them off. Test one: Get to Bergen. Tick. Test two: Start race. Tick. Test three: Look like a cyclist for an hour. Tick.
This was test four: Survive an injection of pace. Oh well, I’ll never be one to die wondering. Better get on with it, Peter.
There were about a hundred of us left. After a race is over, I am often asked to explain how it unfolded, especially if I’ve won, as if it were a novel I’d written, shuffling characters around, plotting the action, throwing in a few red herrings, and placing the hero in peril. It’s an attractive conceit, and I can see why they would like me to take up the invitation, but it’s not possible. They’re not wrong that there is a narrative, but it’s just my narrative. There are a hundred guys each with a story, each story different to everybody else’s. I can only tell mine. You know GoPro cameras? They’re great, eh? One fixed to the front of a bike can give you real excitement and a feel for the internal workings of a race. Now imagine that was your only view of the race. The world championships in Bergen without helicopter coverage, without motorcycle coverage, without finish-line cameras, without commentary, all six and a half hours of it. Well, that’s my story, my movie, my narrow version of the hundred versions, and I don’t think we’d find many willing viewers for that.
I hung on. Focused on the wheel in front. Hid, really. I’m used to riding near the front to see what’s going on, and it turns out that it’s all a bit confusing 30 wheels back. But I wasn’t thinking about winning. I was thinking about surviving and about a respectful end to my two years of wearing this fabulously storied rainbow jersey.
The noise around the circuit didn’t let up for a second, and even as the intensity of the race increased, it was impossible to miss the huge number of Slovak fans who had made the trip to Norway. Flags of my home country arched impossibly high into the sky on huge poles. Every time I heard my name shouted, I felt a little stronger. Every Slovak scream from the roadside reminded me that there was an entire nation at home urging me forward, praying for the impossible to happen. There were thousands of Viking helmets covered in red, white, and blue Norwegian colors, huge mountains of men waving flares, hot dogs, or cans of beer. The smell of sizzling frankfurters or the charring of smoked fish was never absent, just shifting in curtains of scent as you passed from one group to another. Swiss fans rang implausibly large cowbells. No cow would survive a night on the Matterhorn with one of those things round her neck. Union Jacks were in abundance too, a budget airline flight for a fantastic weekend was too much for the fanatical British supporters to pass up. Groups of French and Italian supporters crystallized into passionate smaller gangs extolling the praises of one or another particular rider, matching T-shirts imploring Tony Gallopin or Warren Barguil or Gianni Moscon or Sonny Colbrelli to deliver them a rainbow jersey.
I’d got used to wearing that jersey myself over the past 24 months and realized that I was now without the life and energy that it brings to a rider. I was another cyclist in unfamiliar national colors in the middle of a big pack as it surged past, neither Peter Sagan nor the UCI World Champion, just another feather in the eagle’s flapping wings. I didn’t hear the “Peter!” or “Sagan!” shouts that the rainbow stripes bring, especially being this far from the head of the race. It suited me to be anonymous, but if I thought that perception of anonymity stretched from the crowd to my rivals, then I was kidding myself. They knew I was still there and not warming my toes in the pits or in a nice hot bath at the hotel.
Two climbs of Salmon Hill remained. As we hit it for the penultimate time, the Netherlands injected an acceleration in the race as Tom Dumoulin smashed it up the road in true long-levered Dutch time-trialist style. The bunch was suddenly in a long line and halved in size. That was the last bus stop on the route for many, and they coasted in, their races run. But I was still there against all my expectations. With a lap to go. That guy started clanging that bell to tell us what we already knew. I’m wearing No. 1, but my last half hour as world champion was at hand.
The rest of the Prologue can be found in Peter Sagan’s new memoir, My World. Visit velopress.com/sagan to purchase the book or to read more excerpts.
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My World is Peter Sagan’s highly anticipated memoir, which takes fans behind the scenes of the sport’s talented winner and biggest personality.