September 28, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Peter Sagan had just climbed to the top step of the podium at cycling's world championships on Sunday when the Slovakian star turned the spotlight on issues far greater than a bike race.

Might as well use that podium as a pulpit, after all.

Thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have flooded through Croatia and into Western Europe over the past year, creating tension among nations trying to handle them. The migrant crisis has turned many of those people into nomads, searching not only for borders willing to let them cross, but a country willing to give them a fresh start.

''We live in the moment now,'' Sagan said, ''but maybe in the future, I don't know. Maybe we're not here. That is why it's important. I want to tell the people thinking about how we're going to change the world - OK, one man, maybe nothing, but if we have more, we can change.''

The 25-year-old Sagan was born in the former Czechoslovakia less than a year after the Velvet Revolution restored democracy in the country. While he was still an infant when the nation peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, his family lived through turbulent times.

Perhaps it was no surprise that such world issues weighed on his mind.

''I told Kate, my girlfriend, if I win the rainbow jersey, I want to tell this so people are thinking about the future,'' Sagan said, ''and that we have to change something.''

In many ways, Sagan has become the new face of cycling. He's young, charismatic and exciting, capable of winning any kind of race - a flat-out sprint or over a punchy course like he found at the world championships. His flair for the dramatic has endeared Sagan to older fans who weathered the doping scandals of Lance Armstrong and others, and young fans only learning about the sport.

His relationship with fans was on full display in Richmond, where Sagan in some ways became an adopted American. Fans lining the course shouted his name, urging him on during the decisive final lap, and roared their approval when he rode hands-free across the finish line.

Sagan responded by flipping his helmet into the crowd and raising his arms in triumph.

The victory was also validation for Sagan, who was near the front in every race he competed in this season, but always seemed to come up short. Those second- and third-place finishes even began to draw the ire of his trade team owner, who lamented about how much Sagan was getting paid.

Nevermind that Sagan won two stages and the overall at the Tour of California, or his fourth straight green jersey as the top sprinter at the Tour de France.

''I was winning a lot, and it got boring for the people and the riders,'' he said jokingly, when pressed on all his near-misses. ''I'm always fighting. In the Tour de France and this year at some of the classics, I was at the front but just not the best.''

There was no disputing he was the best on Sunday.

Sagan hid safely in the peloton as riders kept attacking throughout the 260-kilometer race, only popping to the front in the last few kilometers. On the penultimate climb, Sagan jumped to the front and roared away, getting into an aerodynamic tuck to leave the rest of the field behind.

''He was really strong,'' said Australian sprinter Michael Matthews, who wound up taking silver ahead of Lithuania's Ramunas Navardauskas at the finish on Broad Street.

By the time they crossed the line, Sagan was hopping off his bike. He whooped up the crowd, gave his girlfriend a kiss and even high-fived some of the other riders straggling in after him.

Then, he remembered the bigger message he wanted to get across.

''It is about the future,'' Sagan said. ''This is very nice, I am very happy for this, but I want also for another generation that can ride and be here.''

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