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.