The international cycling reporter Matt Rendell writes articles for TV 2 SPORT during this year of Tour de France.
I am standing next to Rasmus Staghoj in the interview area. Reporters do not normally share questions, or ask each other advice. But there are exceptions.
“What are you going to ask?”
“What do you suggest?”
The exception is Peter Sagan.
My channel is live, so I hold Peter for the cue. The forty seconds feel like forty minutes. He is not happy.
Then, “Elia Viviani had a fraction more speed in the finish. How do you judge your own sprint?”
Peter, deadpan: “Not good enough to win. Another day.”
Me: “I know you like to switch off after the finish line, and not look back at the stage. What will your evening look like, and what will you be talking about at the dinner table?”
“From here I go to car, in car to hotel, at hotel, massage, dinner, sleep.”
When you don't want to talk, when you don't even want to be here, facing banks of journalists and TV cameras must be hellish.
There are many changes of light at the Tour de France. In the pre-race dazzle, we, the journalists, struggle to predict what we cannot clearly discern and plan stories for the first two or three days.
Then, the intensity diminishes and the race begins to generate its own drama: the big stories of day one were Fuglsang's fall, the lead-out man Theunissen's win and yellow jersey, and Geraint Thomas's minor spill, missed by most until much later in the evening.
The following day's team time trial created the first hierarchy – although I suspect most analysts ignored the best placed contender, Team Jumbo Visma's Steven Kruijswijk, and counted back from Thomas and Bernal.
And stage three, in Épernay, was all about Julien Alaphilippe and champagne.
Even so, the man most cycling fans wanted to hear from was Peter Sagan. Despite finishing second in stage one, fifth in stage three – taking the lead in the points competition– and fourth in stage four, he has gone largely unmentioned so far in the race.
In anyone else, the green jersey almost blinding visibility. In Peter Sagan, it becomes something like camouflage.
There is much that is Greek godlike in him: the penetrating gaze, the definition of each tiny sinew and muscle, the luminous eyes, the mane of golden hair (currently shaved at the sides – in the Trojan fashion?) – the readiness to accept adoration (and he is unfailingly generous in stopping to chat with his fans, sign autographs and pose for photographs).
However, as gods go, he is a combatant of dazzling speed and strength, not a master of eloquence or persuasive power. An Achilles, when journalism prefers a Hermes, who could “draw you in as if he were winding up a thread. He could spin you out upon a conceit until you were choking with laughter.”
In the novelist Madeline Miller's book Circe, the eponymous character, brought up beneath the sea, reflects:
“I had scarcely known true intelligence – in Oceanos' halls, most of what passed as cleverness was only archness and spite. Hermes' mind was a thousand times sharper and more swift. It shone like light upon the waves. … he entertained me with tale after tale of the great gods and their foolishness, all told in that same, slippery, grinning voice.”
Journalists dream of such articulacy. It makes us look good. Charismatic, likable, warm, genuine, he has all the virtues. Not to interview him would be a dereliction of professional duty. Yet he is also the rider most journalists want to avoid speaking to post-stage.
Not that Peter is unintelligent: quite the contrary. Great champions invariably have great mental agility. And he is full of heart: after his first World Championship win at Richmond in 2015, he seized the opportunity to address the plight of migrants to Europe, only to be summarily interrupted and directed to talk about the racing.
But, after the forestalling of his Muhammad Ali moment, he hasn't tried to relive it – at least, not post-stage, and not before the press pack. When the stage is done, he does not want to talk about cycling. Not for him what is sometimes called the paralysis of analysis.
Part of his brilliance as a rider lies in an ability to avoid excessive rumination: it has always kept him buoyant even when victory evades him.
Perhaps it is absence of stage wins; perhaps it is the consistently inane and unimaginative questions – to which I can only, sadly, plead guilty – and the grinding daily routine. But if wearing the green jersey, and fulfilling the media obligations that come with it, have become so joyless to him, you have to wonder how long Peter Sagan will keep competing. And, however dull those obligatory green-jersey interviews have become, we are still forced to ask: what would we do without him?