A standard NBA contract precludes players from partaking in specific activities outside of basketball deemed to pose a particular risk of injury, including professional wrestling, sky-diving and hang-gliding. In professional cycling, riders with designs on the Tour de France generally consent to an unwritten clause, and tend to eschew the cobbled Classics.
Last spring, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) enjoyed a belated but assured debut at the Tour of Flanders, placing 25th, and he came away from Oudenaarde largely charmed by the experience. A year on, and in the wake of Vincenzo Nibali's departure for Bahrain-Merida, Astana has deemed Fuglsang too precious a commodity to risk at the Ronde, given that he is slated to lead their team at the Tour in July.
"I will go to Pays Basque and so there will not be time to do Flanders," Fuglsang told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Oman. "I will be back to do Amstel, Flèche and Liège but for this year I will skip Flanders. I'd like to do it again, of course, but I know there's a bigger danger of hurting yourself in a race like that and the priorities are a little different this year compared to last year. I was going for the Giro and this year I'll be going for the Tour. It didn't make as much sense to go to Flanders."
Fuglsang turns 32 next month and has participated in 10 Grand Tours over the course of his career, but only twice – at the 2011 Vuelta a España, when he placed 11th, and the 2013 Tour de France – has he had the freedom to ride for himself over the course of three weeks. At CSC and later Leopard Trek, he rode predominantly in support of Andy Schleck. In 2012, Fuglsang was frozen out of riding any Grand Tours by RadioShack's soon-to-be discarded manager Johan Bruyneel. For three of his first four years at Astana, he was part of the group devoted to the service of Vincenzo Nibali.
"That's part of the game. I mean when you're riding with guys like Vincenzo Nibali in the past few years or Andy Schleck before that, it's obvious that they probably have a bigger possibility of getting a result, and that's what counts in the end for the team," Fuglsang said. "But on a personal level I'm really happy to have the chance again."
Fuglsang's lone, unfettered run at the Tour, during his maiden season at Astana in 2013, saw him place 7th overall. Over the years, riders have earned the lofty reputations – and signed the contracts – of Tour contenders based on rather less. Bettering the performance of four years ago is the obvious objective for the Dane at this year's Tour, even if there is a world of difference between leading a team and serving as a deluxe domestique.
"I think I have improved but it's difficult to say because there could be more guys up there in the front this time," Fuglsang said. "Every year is different, but I feel still have room for improvement. And back in 2013, I basically did it alone. There was not much of a team around me, so hopefully that is different this year and hopefully I can do something better."
A strong start in Oman
This week's Tour of Oman sees Fuglsang line up alongside Fabio Aru, a rare occasion when the paths of Astana's leaders for the Tour and Giro, respectively, will overlap in the early part of the season. The additional freedom afforded to Fuglsang this season coincides neatly with the final year of his existing contract at the team.
"The main difference is that this year I am the leader in many of the races so that gives me the possibility to race for myself and win more points, to sign a new contract," he said. "I try to be 100 per cent every year, so from that point of view, this year isn't so different."
Fuglsang placed third overall in last year's Tour of Oman after dovetailing neatly with Nibali on the decisive stage to Green Mountain, and he returns to the race among the favourites for final victory. The Dane was to the fore on Wednesday's stiff finale at Al Bustan, placing third in the uphill sprint behind winner Ben Hermans (BMC Racing) and Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi).
"I knew this climb from other years, where I attacked on the first part and you pay for that on the second small part here to the finish," Fuglsang told Cyclingnews. "I tried to do my best but it also throws in a bit of tactics when it's such a big, open road and there's wind. We needed to play it smart. I think Hermans came from behind in a good moment. Maybe he played it smarter or maybe he was stronger, but he showed good form already in Valencia, and he is for sure one of the guys to beat, together with Rui Costa and a few others."