Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) says that his role model and idol when he was growing up and starting life as a professional cyclist was Belgian Tom Boonen, who will retire on Sunday after Paris-Roubaix.
Sagan remains in awe of Quick-Step Floors' "cool" 36-year-old star, who will try to win a fifth cobbled trophy in the Roubaix velodrome.
"My oldest memory of Paris-Roubaix goes back to 2005, the year that Tom Boonen won for the first time and also became world champion in Madrid,” Sagan told Het Nieuwsblad. “I sat in front of TV at home shouting for Tom's victory. He was my idol.
"When I arrived, I did not know how to ride cobbled classics. Tom Boonen was my example, my reference point. I watched him and regularly asked general questions about cycling. He is cool."
In 2008, the Slovakian placed second in junior Paris-Roubaix behind Andy Fenn – Boonen won the professional race later that day – and took the mountain bike junior world title. He turned professional with Italian team Liquigas in 2010. He quickly made his mark and crossed paths with Boonen.
"The first time I met him? That is one of the most beautiful and important moments with Tom, but that night itself was different. I was at Liquigas neo-pro," Sagan said.
"Young and eager as I was, I made him a dumb move in full preparation for the sprint of the opening stage of the Tour of California. He was angry. Man, I was aware of it. That night we slept in Sacramento in the same hotel. After dinner, I got the courage to walk over to my idol. I said, 'I'm really sorry.' He replied, 'Don't worry, s**t happens in a race.' Typical Tom."
Sagan learned to be humble and friendly from Boonen. "He is a great personality, and always says 'hello' to everyone. I try to do the same, a 'hello' costs nothing."
Boonen narrowly lost the sprint to Australian Mathew Hayman (Orica-Scott) in the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. This Sunday, Sagan and Boonen start as the top two favourites. Sagan wants his first cobble trophy, but if he cannot take it, he would like to see Boonen end his career on top.
"In the first place, I'm not riding against him. I ride my own race," Sagan added.
"If I cannot win, I will be very happy if he did do so. He deserves this. It would be a great culmination of his career."
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