The Best Rider You Don’t Know

At around 4.30pm local time Saturday afternoon, the Twitter parody account Tweeter Sagan came out with “For a year Belgium have no government. In a few minutes they will have at least new ruler”.

As Sagan rolled out of the Liege start gate, the expectation was palpable. Sagan, the Slovakian sensation. The man who beat Spartacus in his own backyard in the Tour de Suisse Prologue. The man who owned the Tour of California. The man who, in cycling terms, is just a boy.

Sagan started the Prologue like a train. Attacking the roads of Liege as though mortally offended by them. But the smooth, sweeping Belgian roads stood their ground. Generally speaking the tougher the circumstances, the better Sagan is. A handful of seconds down at the halfway point and the outside tip of every cycling journo saw yellow slipping away. It was confirmed moments later, as he slipped out of the pedal and went sideways. Most riders would of hit the deck. Not Sagan. The boys a bit special.

He first came to my attention at the 2010 Tour Down Under, duelling with Valverde and Evans on the slopes of Old Wilunga Hill. A 19 year old punk, going toe to toe with two of the sports big names.

By that stage he was already a star of the BMX and Mountainbike scene, skills he shows regular on a regular basis. A teen prodigy who has become one of the deadliest riders in the bunch. The stats are incredible.

2010 – 5 wins

2011 – 12 wins including the national championships and 3 Vuelta stages

2012 – 13 wins and counting, including a second Nationals, dominating the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse, and finishing top 5 in 4 of the classics.

He is a superstar. Not a sprinter but quicker than most. Not a climber but can go uphill. A strong man, a quick man. A winner. His team Liquigas is built for the high country. Sagan works solo.

Sagan is exciting a lot of people. The possibilities are endless for the man from Zilina. Already Aussie bookies have him as Green Jersey Favourite. Olympic Gold is looming too. It seems appropriate to bookend with Twitter. Are we about to see the #summerofsagan?

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Le Tour: A Unique Event

It is an event like no other. I’ve covered some big sporting occasions in my time. Three football World Cups, a Champions League Final, a Rugby World Cup, and an Olympics. But once you’ve experienced the Tour de France, there really is nothing else that can quite compare.

For starters, its still a very French experience. Many international sporting events lose their local flavour. Le Tour does not. Daniel Meangaes still owns the PA system with talk of “Champion du Monde”, “Maillot Jaune” and all manner of French advertisements. Each stage town puts on a spread of its finest culinary wares for the members of the Fourth Estate to enjoy daily. No Bochelism Burger or Slimy Hot Dog at Le Tour.

Then there is the logistics. 21 start towns. 21 finish towns. Over three thousand kilometres of roads covered. This year we go from Belgium, through cobbles to the Channel, down through the Jura and Vosges, into Switzerland, skirt along the French Riveira, into the brutal Pyrenees before a mad dash for Paris.

The whole circus packs up at 7pm in a car park in Italy. 14 hours later its alive again. Only this time, it’s on top of the Galibier. Breathtaking.

It’s the greatest stadium you could wish for. Horrendously steep climbs, valley floors, dizzying descent. A natural sporting ampitheatre, of a majesty that simply takes your breath away. The architects of London 2012 or Qatar 2022 can try their best, but there is no arena that comes close to France.

It’s often said that the Tour imitates life. The suffering, elation, pure unbridled emotion. All of humanity laid bare across three weeks. Even the frailties of the human condition are often on show. It’s a war. A war of attirition to drag your body over the climbs, along the flats and through the time trials. A battle between man and the bike. Don’t let the suffering win.

Suffering. It’s a word that comes up a lot. Suffering is the Tour. The Tour is suffering. But what reward lies those who can suffer more than most.

And then the ultimate goal. Paris. Finishing this race is the absolute for any young bike rider. That first sound of the Champs Elyssees crowd. The whirl of the bike on the cobbles. The Eiffel Tower poking out of the metropolis on the horizon. Even as a hanger on to this grand spectacle, that first viewing of the iconic Parisien sight gave me goosebumps. Its a sign. Journeys end. You’ve done it.

Nothing can beat the first time. Simon Gerrans sums it up nicely, that feeling you get the first time into Paris, the next “it’s not quite the same….”. How could it be?

And that’s what I’m thinkingabout at the moment, somewhere over Indonesia, en route to Brussels and Liege. How can this Tour top last years? My debut race. Cav. Gilbert. Thor. Luz Ardiden. Galibier. Schleck. Cadel. Grenoble. Paris. The sequel is never as good.

Or is it?