Slovak professional cyclist Peter Sagan is the coolest athlete you’ve never heard of.
And you’re not just missing out on a great athlete — you’re missing out on a great lesson.
In a sport followed voraciously across the Atlantic, Sagan is the biggest, baddest, most electric rock star there is. From his Samson-esque locks, which hearken back to the days of glam rock, to his wild stunts on and off the bike, Sagan has captured an entire continent’s imagination and has become cycling’s greatest international ambassador.
At the tender age of 26, not even yet in his prime years, Sagan has a track record that places him among some of the most elite riders to ever compete. Sagan has assured his place in history as a winner of five consecutive green jerseys at the Tour de France, the Tour of Flanders, one of cycling’s “Five Monuments,” and, of course, the rainbow stripes of the road race World Championship.
But to marvel solely at the number and prestige of Sagan’s wins is to deny what makes him unique and so worth following. Cycling, quite frankly, is a boring sport and Peter Sagan makes it exciting. Sagan rides, operates and wins with incredible panache and style.
In many ways Sagan is avant-garde and rebellious in a sport dominated by stuffy, self-important Western Europeans. The Slovak hero wheelies over the finish line, dons bright green afro wigs to celebrate his triumphs in the Tour de France and double fists Belgian beers after victories in the cobbled classics.
In essence, Peter Sagan represents everything the professional peloton lacks. He is a free, and sometimes mischievous, spirit.
To really understand what Sagan means for the sport, though, it is critical to first capture what Sagan’s impact is off the bike and on the streets of Slovak villages. Simply speaking, Sagan is an entire nation’s hero. He is the greatest Slovak athlete of all time and is an icon within his country.
To put his popularity in perspective, when Sagan married his wife Katerina last year in his home country, an entire village turned out for the spectacle and Sagan, true to his eccentric form, put on a show that involved him cycling across a high wire while sporting a stylish fur coat, lavishly decorated velvet jacket and leather hunting boots.
But beyond his showmanship, Sagan is also an incredible athletic boon for the people of Slovakia. He organizes children’s cycling tours, puts on training camps for deserving youth and does everything he can to encourage young Slovakians to embrace their potential. He is their Superman.
Everything that Michael Jordan was for the American urban youth, Sagan is for Slovakia. In a nation lacking global recognition or worldwide stars, Sagan stands alone as Slovakia’s opportunity to say to the world, “Don’t forget about us.”
While he has made a name for himself among American cycling fans through his dominance at the Amgen Tour of California, Sagan’s global appeal rests on a combination of talent, attitude and joy for the sport. Perhaps Americans have warmed up to him so nicely because he wins, wins often and isn’t afraid to let you know about it, but to really appreciate Super Sagan is to realize the extent that he has turned the sport on its head.
Bucking convention isn’t something you do in the pro peloton. Whether it be his facial hair and flowing mane, or his goofy custom helmets, Sagan is a wild card and in some ways a fashion icon in the sport. Much like Allen Iverson went against the grain during his NBA career by publicly embracing urban dress and sound while cultivating a popular and exciting hip-hop image, Sagan shows an otherwise serious group of pro cyclists that their sport is still the people’s game and that it’s alright to just have fun riding your bicycle.
If there’s one takeaway to draw from Peter Sagan, the “Tourminator” and world champion, it is that even while competing at the highest level or rising to the greatest heights it is important and even beneficial to have a little fun.
I love Sagan because he rides with an incomparable joy even while dominating other riders. Oftentimes, in the heat of competition or in an effort to be our best selves, we forget to do what we love and to allow ourselves to be passionate. As an athlete, Sagan reminds us that passion and success don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.
At the end of the day Peter Sagan is just a kid from Slovakia who loves riding his bike.
Marc Cugnon is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .