He smiled to himself and shook his head in a kind of ecstatic bewilderment: “Did I just do that?”
Peter Sagan echoed his sense of disbelief in his finish line salute, raising his arms in an exultant shrug, as if he had surprised himself.
Compare and contrast with the roar at Tirreno-Adriatico when pressure on the young man to win had become intense, or the mighty kick he hoofed at his blameless machine after being mown down by a television motorbike at La Vuelta.
To see a sportsman truly lost in the moment is a wonderful privilege. To see the reaction of Sagan’s peers was also something. Tom Boonen’s smile suggested that he wouldn’t have been happier if he’d won the race himself.
More was to come. Sagan’s first words to the media as world champion were given in a television interview: an address occasionally derailed by the challenges of speaking in a second language, but in which his meaning was clear. He had been motivated by the plight of migrants to Europe and hoped that sport would inspire a more compassionate approach.
“I want to say to all the people: change this world,” he concluded.
Not bad for a rider demonised for an act of crass stupidity on the Tour of Flanders podium two years ago. The boy has become a man. Name another newly-crowned world champion who cites the plight of refugees before he discusses his performance. Sagan seemed genuinely surprised when the interviewer blithely changed the subject (“Sorry? The race?”).
The Sagan era, long heralded, but delayed by a seemingly endless succession of second places, might now be upon us. He is handsome, and intelligent enough to find motivation in world events, even if his limited English stints his articulacy. Sagan is unlikely to become a Nobel laureate, but he makes no pretension to statesmanship. He is a bike rider, and a ferocious one at that.
His acceleration on the cobbled climb of 23rd Street to rid himself of the peloton was formidable; his descent, nonchalant in the extreme. With his pursuers bearing down on him, he pedalled without undue concern, seemingly considering how to celebrate.
When the moment came, Sagan shook his head, as if trying to wake himself from a dream, and simply smiled. Compare and contrast with the manufactured ecstasy of the Premier League footballer who claims to be lost in the moment, until he scores against a former club and contents himself with silence.
Road cycling’s recent World Champions have been worthy, but largely unknown beyond their sport. Sagan will change that. He is box office, a rider able to transcend boundaries. Cycling’s stock closed up yesterday, significantly. That Sagan’s coronation resulted from a mix of on-the-bike power and off-the bike humility is cause for celebration.
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