Peter Sagan and the Paradox of Eminence

Every sport needs its hero, those once-in-a-generation individuals who come to redefine a sport. These protagonists first shape the public perception of the sport, becoming its symbol for those with no sense of its history. And, ultimately, public perception works backwards to influence how even the sport’s traditionalists must understand the new reality of their sport and its meaning for millions around the world.

Whether one is inclined to like it or not, many of these battles seem to be playing out with the person of Peter Sagan. His name is increasingly thrown about, perhaps too often, as a “great”. Yet what is less understood is how he increasingly symbolises the age-old battle between ambition, tradition and greatness in sport. The way that the paradoxes between those three things are resolved may very likely define this sport’s twenty first century. Change in a sport like cycling happens rarely, and when it does happen it happens slowly—but there are telltale signs that minor battles we are seeing today are a sign of larger changes underfoot in this sport of ours.

There’s more to Peter Sagan than his palmarès . Sagan the person, Sagan the personality, complicates the cycling world’s love for him. There is, most obviously, his continual ability to tease this sport.

Sometimes he teases cycling through an unsuspected seriousness. For instance, right after he won the world championship last year in Richmond, he ignored the interviewer’s questions to instead talk about the European migrant crisis, and the good that individuals can do by believing they can improve the world. When the interviewer tried to change the subject back to the race he had just won, Sagan seemed frustrated that someone could lose so much perspective to come to think that a bike race was more important than migrants’ lives. “Sorry? The race?”, he questioned, with a mocking expression. In three words, he put everyone in cycling back in the real world, popping the bubble that so frequently surrounds those who define themselves by a sport.

Other times he teases cycling by ignoring its customs. We all know about Sagan not shaving his legs at the start of the 2016 season. Sean Kelly perfectly summed up the view of cycling’s old guard with his comment about Sagan to CyclingTips that “He’s wearing the world champion’s jersey, and he owes it to be respectful and to be clean and presentable.”

This sport can be a serious one, and Sagan seems to take pleasure in developing the persona of a kid who just loves to ride bikes, and who couldn’t care less about its customs and seriousness. This is all very much on display in a recent GoPro video featuring Sagan on holiday at a mountain bike race. His occasional infidelity to the road discipline by entering mountain races (including at the upcoming Rio Olympics) are a cause for concern to some who see it as a lack of devotion and dedication.

But the 26 year old Slovakian’s palmarès, too, points to some anomalies which in turn many have suggested are a sign of greatness. To start, there’s his exceptional success across a wide range of races. Then there’s his surprising versatility for a supposed sprinter. He can limit losses to, if not quite contest, pure climbers, as he did in the queen stage of the 2015 Tour of California, which set him up to win the general classification. And he can descend as well as Nibali, which was on full display at last year’s Tour. Four times winner of the Tour de France points classification, winner of the Tour of Flanders this year—the list goes on, all highlighting his versatility.

This versatility is itself relatively rare in a sport where to win one classification, or one race, can require complete dedication and a very different training regimen. The versatility upsets the expectations about the physical builds of riders who win certain races, and many have noted how the style harks back to at least one of the cycling greats of the twentieth century.

All that, and he’s young, with many years of riding ahead of him. There’s a great deal more Peter Sagan to see.

Sports are rarely changed from the inside. The process of change cannot happen in any community where its most ardent supporters are those who hold its positions of power. We can see this all too clearly in cycling with the UCI. History and tradition are paramount to those who live a sport rather than watch it, to those who study it and not just support it. And with the preeminence of history and tradition comes the belief that things are best as they are now, or even as they were thirty years ago; and even if one does not believe that, a traditionalist will still believe that the future presents dangers rather than opportunities. Enter Sean Kelly’s comment about Sagan’s unshaven legs.

Change is a slow process precisely because of this resistance, and it is not guaranteed. Any single rider who begins to be discussed as a potential “great” must then grapple individually with the paradox between ambition and tradition.

Ambition for greatness in any sport steeped with history and tradition is always going to be a convoluted, messy path. And the paradox of eminence in sport is that greatness is less likely when you play within all the rules, as the sport was practiced and won by its last star. Merely repeating former greatness may seem like the obvious path, but what was greatness decades ago may not be greatness today. And yet to break those rules leaves one open to being rejected by the sport as much as being recorded in its books—as Sagan has already seen.

Change seems to happen backwards. That is, a protagonist first influences those with no sense of the sport’s history, who in turn force the sport’s traditionalists to reconsider their own views. Because of this, Sagan’s unconventionality may already be working, and change in cycling as well as the unmistakable eminence of a new star may be well on their way.

All greats, in all sports, have struggled to find a path through this paradox of ambition for greatness and tradition, and sports’ history books are written about those who navigate it successfully. Peter Sagan already has the signs of greatness attached to him, but rarely have we considered what exactly greatness will require of him. Perhaps most interesting of all will be his appearance at this year’s Tour and those in future, where the meeting of cycling’s new unconventional star and its bastion of tradition will be on full display.

This Is Cycling

“There is something bizarre, yet intoxicating, in the way cycling juxtaposes these little dramas of pain and suffering amid landscapes of sublime beauty. As Nietzsche wrote in “The Gay Science”, “what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?”

The Economist’s new lifestyle magazine, 1843, published a piece by author and journalist Tom Vanderbilt on what it’s like getting into cycling. Titled “The Long and Winding Road”, the essay deals with midlife crises to start and moves on to how a sport can be so addictive. It’s stunningly written, and comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to capturing why cyclists put themselves through so much pain to repeatedly go up mountains.

“War Minus the Shooting?”: The Olympics, International Sport, and Orwell on the Sporting Spirit

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The Olympic Games are upon us. Which means, of course, that for a month or so countries will forget their rivalries, jealousies and bitterness and come together to compete in a friendly way to advance world peace and everlasting human health and happiness. Those colourful, shining, interlocking rings are the symbol of the games that will bind humans of all races, faiths, creeds and beliefs closer together through the sporting spirit. Just as in ancient Olympia the Olympics stood for brotherhood and love for one’s opponent, so too next month in Brazil will the world come to be a more peaceful, caring place.

If I came across as sarcastic, that was merely incidental. In 2013 I attended the opening ceremony for the next year’s Winter Olympics at Olympia, and I also visited the Olympics Academy right nearby, a few hundred metres from the ancient track and field. Those at the Academy, as well as those Olympic organisers who spoke before the torch was lit, all used language like I did above. The belief in this vision of the Olympics was real.

But clearly, when I write about what the Olympics is meant to achieve, we sense that something isn’t quite right. George Orwell was someone who saw right through the narrative that sports advance world peace. Following a visit by the USSR’s football team, Orwell was sufficiently frustrated (or perhaps shocked) to pen his thoughts on the ironies of the “sporting spirit”. His brief essay is a damning critique of international sports, presenting almost the opposite to the Olympic narrative, and stemming from belief that nationalism is an unnecessary and dangerous phenomenon.

“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”

“Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

He ends by speculating on where this “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence” comes from, arguing it comes from changes in lifestyle.

“In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause of group hatreds.”

There are times, which Orwell seems not to admit, when a sporting spirit comes through and gives credence to the narrative of sport as in some way advancing a notion of peace. But one reason I like Orwell’s essay, as extreme as it is, is for how it cuts through the rosy gloss we so frequently put on things. It can be all too easy to convince ourselves of a nice-sounding narrative, as we have done about the Olympics and international sport, when even brief thought and reflection could bring us closer to the reality.

That reality is probably somewhere between the Olympics narrative and Orwell’s. There are reasons beyond “group hatred” that explain why we continue to play international sport and contest the Olympics, and I think these reasons have much to do with showing that people are people. Sometimes one country wins, another time another does. In a single Olympics almost all countries will at points feel uplifted and proud, and then disappointed and embarrassed. Countries will swap roles in different events and at different points, and come to see that the range of human emotions are something common—even the bitterness and jealousies. People can come to feel closer even if that closeness comes through seeing their nations pushed apart by rivalry.

It was hard as a spectator, for instance, not to cry as five men of different nationalities crossed the finish line in tears, each for a different reason, in one of the final stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Some cried from disappointment, others from happiness, others from injury. They showed that whatever their nationalities, they were human—and they could be injured, overjoyed or dismayed just like anyone else. Cycling reporter Neal Rogers summed it up perfectly, I think, when he said that “Drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity.”

Two open questions are whether some sports are more prone to being “war minus the shooting” than others, as well as whether these views of sport have changed over the period since Orwell wrote. Clearly some sports, the more physical, seem more inclined to produce violence and negative feelings. But witness the barely-concealed bitterness and open disgust between the American and New Zealand sailing teams following the last America’s Cup—a relatively tame sport if there is such a thing—and even that narrative is complicated.

Let us hope for Orwell to be proven wrong entirely, but it in anticipation of the Olympics it is probably best to escape, to a degree, the fuzzy narrative of world peace that will inevitably be propagated.

The Drama and Humanity of Sport: On Stage 19 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia

“To clarify, drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity. At least 4 in the top 10 on GC were in tears today. That’s drama.”

— Cycling journalist Neal Rogers on Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia.

Stage 19 of this year’s Giro d’Italia was when it all blew apart. Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk had been in the maglia rosa, the pink leader’s jersey, for the best part of the week, and had been looking unbeatable. He looked in control, cool and calm, and with a three minute lead over his nearest rival, it was said that “only a crash or major mishap” would keep him from winning the Giro.

Alack, Murphy’s law. The riders crested the first major climb of the day, the Colle dell’Agnello, in heavy mist, entering France from Italy. And then, a major crash and mishap. Kruijswijk misjudged his speed, entered a corner too fast, had his balance wrong, and couldn’t recover. He crashed hard into a bank of ice, flipping over his handlebars and landing heavily. He immediately leapt up, and put his hand to his helmet in disbelief. For the first time in the entire Giro, Kruijswijk looked anything but calm and collected, which was unsurprising after what was a very heavy fall. He struggled to straighten his bike and put his chain back on, eventually managing but having to stop again a few yards later as something was still clearly wrong with the bike. His rivals all passed him and accelerated to build a lead. By the end of the day, Kruijswijk would cross the finish line almost five minutes after his nearest rival on the general classification, losing what had seemed a practically secured maglia rosa.

Was it fair that his rivals took advantage of a crash? Social media was divided on this very point. The consensus seemed to be that this was not so much misfortune as misjudgement. Descending is a part of cycling, a skill like those that had put Kruijswijk in the pink jersey in the first place, and he was found wanting. That’s what bike racing is all about.

Esteban Chaves cried as he crossed the finish line knowing he would wear the pink jersey the next day. Vincenzo Nibali cried as he crossed the line, winning the stage after a few tough days of poor performance. Alejandro Valverde was disappointed as he fell off the podium positions after losing so much time to Nibali. And Ilnur Zakarin, who had been performing wonderfully during the Giro, ended the day in hospital after a brutal crash on a descent.

Such was the drama of a single day’s cycling of a 21-stage grand tour.

Neal Rogers’ tweet above perfectly captured the day. It captured why fans had cried, too, seeing an injured, shaken, embarrassed and oh-so-disappointed Kruijswijk cross the line. He had to ride past thousands of fans on the rest of the day’s stage. There was no hiding for him, and he had to face both Esteban Chaves, the new holder of the maglia rosa after the stage, as well as Vincenzo Nibali, the stage winner and ultimately the Giro winner. Raw emotion all around. These may be incredible athletes, but they have emotions just like anyone else.

That’s why sport grips the imagination in a way that movies seem these days not to. We know the ending of a movie before its done; they are so formulaic and scripted by Hollywood and other industries. In sport, it isn’t over until it’s over. Tears are real, as are the full range of human emotions in a single day—pride and excitement to begin, embarrassment and disappointment to end.

All this, playing out on some of the most beautiful and poignant mountains in the world. The contrast between the beauty and permanence of the landscapes next to the suffering of humans trying to overcome them is what makes this sport a symbol of humanity. It is drama, but in that drama is some central element of being human.