OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — The man leaned into Peter Sagan and pointed toward the Southern California pavement. Sagan leaned in as well. What could this man have to share with a man they call the Terminator?
The club rider warned Sagan (Cannondale) of the danger that, for most of us, was nearly upon us. A road that seemed to fall from the mountain, with tight corners and a surface that tended to decline a tire’s proposals to go steady.
Did he know? Had he ridden this descent before?
I watched from a few feet away. As nice as it was, I couldn’t actually believe someone was warning one of the pro peloton’s best riders. Danger? Peter Sagan drinks danger from a frosty mug while taking a sauna, right?
It was as if Sagan took it personally, that courtesy. He responded by sitting on his top tube as if he were at a stoplight, his knees bowed out, arms dangling. He kept his hands on the hoods and dropped everyone in the corners, passing on the brakes, never on the saddle, never in the drops. He just sat there, as aero as a barn in the wind, and vanished up the road.
It’s one thing to hear the stories of the 23-year-old’s ability on a bicycle, which is clearly prodigious. It’s quite another to see it for yourself, from a bike-length away. Someone asked me if Sagan really is that good on the bike. If all those ridiculous stories were true. My response was that yes, all of it was true and probably more. A former teammate of his once told me he’d seen him ride up a cobbled climb, front tire feet off the ground, both hands off the bars. Would you believe it?
Certainly, after a few hours of riding mostly behind him, I could.
A cadre of journalists migrated to Los Angeles earlier this winter for what amounted to a team launch, as Cannondale was now the title sponsor of the lime-green team. They flew us in from Boulder (me) and as far away as Belgium. There was a team presentation at which the boys traipsed around a movie studio in tuxedos. There was also a bike ride, with local clubs and dealers. The team would ride along and a group of us would hit the Rock Store climb and descend back to Westlake Village, a posh town north of L.A.
That “group” turned out to be an actual peloton of riders of all shapes (trees, apples, pears) and sizes, with 100 plus riders adorned in their club kits and ready to ride with their icons. The swarm of rainbow-hued bees posed for a group photo (which Sagan bounced through on his rear wheel) and off it went. The club guys’ attempts to keep the pace inclusive failed miserably because — imagine this — pros don’t like the idea of riding with an enormous group of us average riders.
Sagan took a natural break on the roadside and quickly caught back on, launching a dirt berm in his pursuit. He went out of his way to do it, and I don’t think anyone else was even watching.
All in a day’s work, one imagines.
By the time we reached the top, the entire Cannondale team was at the front, tapping out what for them I’m sure was a nice recovery spin. Most of the interlopers were dispatched at this point and those who weren’t trickled sweat on their top tubes, vision blurred (at least I was).
Some people (they couldn’t be fans, could they?) had gathered on the roadside and had begun cheering. Ever the homecoming queen, Sagan began his best parade wave, while — yes of course you finally guessed it this time — riding a one-handed wheelie. Normal guys are wheezing, I feel like I’ve been dipped in ether and set on fire, and the prom queen is up there waving and laughing and holding a rose in his teeth for all I can tell, resplendent in a fresh national champion’s kit.
All in a day’s work.
I smiled, reminding myself of another rider’s past advice: Don’t ride with a pro unless you are one.
As we crest the final climb, a lean figure clad in black is climbing toward us. More yelps, this time for Garmin-Sharp’s Dave Zabriskie, who, by the look of it, has stuffed himself deep into the hurt locker on a training ride. He finishes the climb and effortlessly catches back on the descending group. Climbing like a zombie, descending like a kestrel.
It’s one thing to see all of this on television, or, more accurately, to piece it together on Internet feeds that appear to be cycling, recreated in chunks of colors that look like Legos. But to be a part of the motion, its twitches and its movements, that’s how you know. How you see the grace the pros have and the rest of us try to recreate, if only in our heads.
It’s at this point that Sagan turns his top-tube into a lawn chair, a slight smile on his face as he rides away from his very courteous elder.
All in a day’s work.
Reporter Matthew Beaudin is in Belgium and northern France for the cobbled classics season.