Peter Sagan: On Training

An excerpt from chapter “Spring 2015” in Peter Sagan’s new memoir, My World.

Why So Serious?

I’m lucky. I’ve never had any problem motivating myself to train. If I want to win, I have to race well. And if I want to race well, I have to train. But that is what training is to me: preparation to race. Not training for its own sake. Maybe that works for some riders: G.C. riders, for instance, like Alberto Contador or Chris Froome, who don’t race so often, need to train with structure to make sure they arrive at their goals in peak condition. Also, they can use races like the one-week stage races in Spain or the Dauphine or Tour de Romandie to train. If you take this year, 2018, as a comparison, I won my first race in Australia in January. I’m basically trying to win twice a week pretty much from then until the world’s in September with a couple of weeks off here and there for good behavior. Or, in the case of last year, bad behavior, but we’ll come to that.

Training to say you’re in good shape. Amazing numbers. Wow. Well, as far as I’m aware, no bike race has ever been won on a power meter. Nobody ever got UCI points for wearing the maximum output jersey. Even Chris Froome has to stop looking at his computer and run up mountains in his cycling shoes sometimes. Training for its own sake. That’s exactly how it felt with Bobby. He was obsessed with my figures. I had to do exactly as he asked every day and then spend the rest of the day talking to him about it. I was absolutely exhausted and miserable with it. I’d start thinking I’d turn my phone off or pretend I was sick. It was ludicrous. I love training, but this was killing me. Death by numbers.

Every coach I’ve ever met asks me: “Do you want to be a better climber? A better sprinter? A better time trialer?” I say, why mess with nature? I am what I am. I go OK. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I believe that if you make a drastic change to improve one facet of your performance, there will be a price to pay elsewhere. Riders who have lost weight to climb better lose their kick. People who have improved their stamina become unable to sprint. Becoming more aerodynamic means losing power. The list is endless, and I’m sure you get what I’m talking about.

The basic problem was a pretty simple one. Forget resting heart rate, fat content, power outputs, and training algorithms. I was just plain knackered. Tired beyond belief. But still, I’d drag myself out of the flat in Monaco and cajole myself into riding along, sticking to whatever plan Bobby had set for me that day.

I went to the northern classics and admit I was truly shit. This was meant to be the year when I cracked it: no more second and third steps of the podium, no more near misses. Well, we got that right anyway. I was nowhere near. By the time April blew itself out, I’d forgotten what a podium looked like.

The team was not happy. All sorts of rumors were floating around about what was going wrong. I can’t say if Bobby actually said this or not, but I heard he told the team I’d been overraced so much since turning pro, that I was already burnt out. Any results I would ever achieve in my career had already been won. I was finished at 25. A busted flush. A racehorse whose knees had gone.

“That’s it,” I said. “Fuck it, I quit.”

In my mind I was already an ex-professional cyclist on the beach with Katarina. Well, I’d still have some stories to tell about the times I’d had. Maybe I’d write a book one day.

Patxi Vila, Peter’s Coach at Tinkoff

Patxi Vila was already on the staff at Tinkoff, but he was a different type of guy than Bobby. He was a Basque who’d been a pro until pretty recently, without hitting the heights that Bobby had. But perhaps that was a strength for him as a coach. Winners are often so driven that they’re not so good at listening to others’ needs. A good domestique has to know what his leader wants or he’ll never make a good career. Maybe that’s a better base for being a coach?

Patxi was very smart at the beginning. “I realized straightaway that you knew what you were doing,” he told me. “You ate well, your weight didn’t fluctuate much, you had a strong constitution that didn’t need a lot of attention. Most of all, you’d won a shed-load of races without ever having a coach.”

I liked him. He let me get on with it.

“The training plan I worked out with you at the start was just so we had something written down, really,” says Patxi now. We’re all sitting around remembering these days in the Sierra Nevada where BORA-hansgrohe is doing our customary February training camp before the start of the 2018 classics. It’s after dark, it’s freezing outside, and the Wi-Fi is terrible, so we might as well sit and talk. “It was clear you had an accurate understanding of your body. I saw my role to support that rather than dismantle it. If you told me that you’d only done one hour instead of four because you felt shitty, I’d know it was the right decision. It was easy.”

With Patxi as my coach, I slowly began to relax. In my head, I was already done. I started to think about what was important: health, happiness, being myself, having fun. It’s good to have a plan because it points you in the right direction, but you can’t expect it to work 100 percent of the time. That’s not racing. That’s not life. Say you have a plan to be in the first 10 riders with 7 kilometers to go in a race because there’s a narrow bit of road and a little hill up ahead. But a hundred other riders have that plan, too. That’s 90 people who are going to be disappointed, but what are they going to do? Get off and walk home? You have to adapt. Find another way. Accept what is in front of you and find another way. There are some things that you just can’t change, like punctures and crashes. I decided from that point on that I would do my best but accept the results whether good or bad. If I win, I win. If I crash, I crash. If I come in 30th, I come in 30th. I’ll still be Peter at the finish, and the sky won’t fall.

That’s how it was when I first started out. Then you start winning, start leading, the pressure builds, and one day, somewhere along the way, you lose what it was that helped you win in the first place. Thinking back to my debut at the Tour Down Under, I remembered thinking, I could win one of these. Five years on, I’d lost that feeling. It wasn’t just the overtraining, it was the contract negotiations, the uncertainty, the pressure. And then, as if to reassure me that I wasn’t completely losing my mind, amid all the tests at Tinkoff, the team doctor said the results showed I’d had a virus slowing me down for much of the previous season. Thank you! It wasn’t all me, then. Had Cannondale known? Did they decide not to tell me because they needed me on the start line week in, week out, knowing that I was leaving at the end of the year? I don’t know. But they either knew and kept it from me or their medical testing was shit. One of those scenarios had to be true.

I still talked to Patxi most days and filled him in on what I was doing, but the pressure was off completely. All I had to do was get through the 2015 season. I was quitting soon. Why so serious?

[RELATED: Peter Sagan on Sprinting]

My World by Peter Sagan MW from cover 600x900 My World is Peter Sagan’s highly anticipated memoir, which takes fans behind the scenes of the sport’s talented winner and biggest personality.

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