A couple of years ago it looked for all intents and purposes that Jakob Fuglsang’s career as a GC rider was over. Astana - his team then, as it is now – had Vinceno Nibali, Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa on their books, and the chances offered to Fuglsang were few and far between. With 2018 on the horizon, however, Fuglsang is in the best position he has been for years when it comes to leading a Grand Tour challenge, and at the age of 32, might be on the cusp of delivering a major result.
For those who aren’t entirely versed in his career, he was a talented mountain biker who crossed over thanks to the support of Bjarne Riis, and in his first two years at Saxo Bank, the young Dane notched up a number of impressive rides. He looked like a star of the future.
Sixth at the Dauphiné in 2009 was followed by an impressive Vuelta a Espana, and then third overall at the Tour de Suisse the following season. In those early years, he became a trusted lieutenant for the Schleck brothers but when Astana came calling at the start of 2013 the Dane jumped ship.
Although Nibali signed from Liquigas at the same time and Aru was developing apace in his second year, Fuglsang was afforded the chance to ride for himself at the Tour de France in his debut season in Kazakh colours, and duly paid back that trust with seventh. From that moment on, however, he became a key domestique for Nibali. Grand Tour after Grand Tour passed with the Dane sacrificing his chances for others on a regular basis.
“Maybe there were times that I doubted if I could be a leader again,” Fuglsang tells Cyclingnews from Astana’s camp in Spain.
“I was working for others, and I know that I’m good at it and be one of the best because I can work on lots of different terrains.”
Circumstances, like terrains, can change. Landa moved on in 2016, Nibali a year later, and in 2018, Aru will race for UAE Emirates. Whether it’s a case of last man standing or that the cream has risen to the top remains to be seen, but Fuglsang appears ready to seize his chance.
“After 2013 I was mainly riding for Vincenzo. When he left it opened up a door and I got my chance again. “I’m happy that I got the chance to lead again. I’m happy that I stayed at Astana and that they still believe in me even after a period when I wasn’t winning.”
The drought in terms of major wins abruptly ended in June when Fuglsang came out on top of a thrilling edition of the Criterium du Dauphiné. Fuglsang took two stages, the latter of which helped net the overall after Chris Froome had worked Richie Porte over in the mountains. After years of promise Fuglsang had finally delivered in a major stage race. While the Dauphiné was a major landmark in his career, Fuglsang points to the Rio Olympic Games when asked about his turnaround. He finished second behind Greg Van Averaet to pick up Denmark’s first men’s Olympic medal since Rolf Sorensen came second to Pascal Richard in Atlanta.
“I think I’m in the best place I’ve been mentally. The Olympics gave me a huge boost and then the Dauphiné victory, with the two stages, and beating the ones that are considered the best GC riders of our time, that gave a lot of confidence. I’m in my best state mentally and it’s been great for my motivation,” he says.
“It all came together but there were also a lot of years when I was close. There were lots of second places, third places, and fourths. I was coming close and just missing that little bit. Maybe I was missing some luck and that played an important role in the Dauphiné.”
Unfortunately Fuglsang was unable to carry through that condition and state of mind into the Tour. He lay inside the top ten before a crash and the resulting injuries saw him drop out, but with Aru having left, Fuglsang finds himself front and centre to Astana’s Grand Tour plans.
The Tour is the Tour
With Miguel Angel Lopez set for the Giro d’Italia in May, Fuglsang will lead at the Tour de France. At the time of writing Astana have not entirely finalised his pre-Tour de France race programme but the likelihood is that he will start in Valencia and make Paris-Nice his first objective. One unresolved issue is whether he rides the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. With the Tour shifted a week due to football’s World Cup in Russia, there will be an extra week between the Dauphiné and the Grand Départ. The Tour de Suisse is also set to feature a team time trial – like the Tour – and Fuglsang is undecided.
“To some extent my programme will be around the Tour. What needs to be looked at is the period before the Tour as the race is pushed back a week. In that case it might be more interesting to do the Tour de Suisse, where there is apparently going to be a team time trial. We have a team time trial at the Tour so it still needs to be discussed. I’d also like to defend my Dauphiné title so we’ll see what we do,” he says.
With Lopez set to ride the Giro, and no concerns over an Aru or a Nibali changing their plans at the last moment, Fuglsang has the luxury of building up to the Tour de France relatively stress-free. Like any genuine Grand Tour challenger he will have his core support around him for the majority of the year
“It’s nice to know what’s going to happen. Mentally it means that I know exactly what I’m going to get into. This year proved that I can do big things, that I can win big races, so while there’s more pressure I also think that I get more support. In general I think that it will create more room in the team for other riders.
“Of course we need to come with a strong team, especially because of the team time trial but you also need a team that can compete on a number of terrains, such as the cobbles. Having a strong team is of course important and there are riders who already know they’re going to be around me.”
The biggest question is whether Fuglsang can take the Dauphiné result and move up another gear. Was that the best we’ll see from the Dane or is there another level to his talent? Only time will tell but Astana’s last man standing certainly has the one thing he deserves the most, opportunity.
“You’re always searching for those little extra bits, the right preparation and then bringing everything together,” he says.
“I believe that I found the right way this year. There’s always things that can be done better but I’ll try and repeat as much as I can from the Dauphiné but the aim has to be to try and get better.”