Jakob Fuglsang has been part of the Astana team for four years but, remarkably, the Danish stage race rider is yet to win a race in the sky blue colours of the Kazakhstan team. He hopes that will change in 2017 after being named as Astana's designated leader for the Tour de France.
In 2013 Fuglsang finished seventh in the Tour de France but has since slipped into a non-protagonist role at Astana, riding for Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru as the Italians proved to be more ambitious and more successful in Grand Tours.
He has patiently waited his turn and his Grand Tour stars have aligned for 2017. Nibali has moved on to Bahrain-Merida, while Aru stumbled and suffered at the Tour de France, suggesting he is not the phenomenon that his victory at the Vuelta a Espana indicated. Due to a cut in budget, Astana have failed to sign a true replacement for Nibali and so Fuglsang, boosted by his silver medal in the road race at the Rio Olympics, has been offered a second chance. He is also in the final year of his contract and so has that extra push to do well and secure his next deal.
Fuglsang was invited to the Astana top table for last week's formal announcement of the team's 2017 goals by team manager Alexander Vinokourov. Fabio Aru will have the task of beating former team leader Vincenzo Nibali at the 100th Giro d'Italia, while Fuglsang is officially the team leader at the Tour de France. He is not expected to win the yellow jersey but he does not want to miss out on his second big chance in the sport's biggest race.
"For me it's super nice that I can get another chance to ride as a leader. I think I'm more mature and more ready to accept the responsibility," he tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview, admitting that he is too much of a nice guy in a cutthroat world of Grand Tour ambition.
"It's not a problem for me to work for another team leader but I really want to go for it and really find my limits this time. I don't think I have found my limits yet. I still believe I can do better than I've done so far, that I've got more in me."
Fuglsang's best result and closest to a major victory came in Rio at the Olympics. He was beaten by Greg Van Avermaet in the sprint but taking the silver medal was a pleasing wake up call and reminded him of his own ability. He also did it while leading the Danish team and not under the shackles of the Astana hierarchy.
"aking silver in Rio was a very special result for me. People say every medal at the Olympics should be considered a victory and I agree with that," he says.
"It's important for me for several reasons. First off, it's a clear sign to the team that I can perform at a high level as a team captain in hugely important races. Personally it was hugely satisfying and gave me a hug boost in my self-confidence for 2017."
Still on the way up
Fuglsang will be 32 when he lines up in Dusseldorf for the start of the Tour de France in July. He has been a professional since 2009 when he quit mountain biking for a road race career with Saxo Bank. When he was snubbed by RadioShack for a place in the Tour de France, he moved to Astana and proved his Grand Tour talents with seventh overall.
His career seemed to be on an upward curve but instead he had to work for Nibali as the Sicilian won the 2014 Tour de France. He went close to stage victories several times but had to sacrifices other chances for Nibali. This year he finished 12th in the Giro d'Italia while helping Nibali win again and then rode to help Aru in the Tour de France.
"I feel like I'm a mature rider. I don't feel old and I don't feel I'm on the way down. I still believe I'm on the way up," Fuglsang argues, his ten Grand Tours confirming his consistency.
"Of course I'm not young, I'll admit that. But I think I've got a lot of experience and knowledge now, without a loss in my top-end ability. I know how to move in the big races, how to read them and how to save my energy. Hopefully I know how to win races."
Fuglsang seems to like the route of the 2017 Tour de France, noting fewer time trials, fewer mountaintop finishes but a generally harder race to suit his style and experience. Neither he nor Vinokourov have so far refused to specify what would constitute a good result a Tour de France. However, seventh, equalling his result from 2013, seems a low mark, while a top five result would be more satisfying.
"I'd be happy with a top five in the Tour de France, I think it'd prove a lot of things. If you can do top five in the Tour de France, then you're in reach of the podium. Form there victory is not far away," Fuglsang argued.
"Of course it all depends on how the race goes. If I'm placed higher for much of the Tour, say on the podium, and then slip to fifth, I wouldn't be happy.
"I know the riders fighting for the GC at the Tour are different now but all the big guys were there back in 2013 and Contador was at his very best too. Unfortunately for me, there's a really talented generation of Grand Tour riders racing at the moment. Some strong young guys are coming up too, so it's not going to be easy, even to get a top five, but I believe I can do something if the race goes in our favour."
Back in training
Fuglsang has not pedalled his bike in anger since the team time trial world championships in Qatar on October 20. Instead he has been enjoying his off-season, mixing some mountain bike riding with running and ending his time off with a luxury holiday in the Maldives.
"I hope it's not going to be too hard to get back," he admits with a smile before going for his first short training ride and coffee stop with his new teammates in Montecatini.
The Astana riders travelled to Calpe at the weekend to begin a first block of serious base training. Fuglsang will also sit down with the Astana directeur sportif to discuss and finalise his 2017 race programme during his Spanish sojourn. He hopes to have a say on his programme and teammates now he is team leader for the Tour de France. He also wants to have a bit of fun and freedom by again riding the Tour of Flanders.
"I hope I can start in the Tour of Oman or the Abu Dhabi Tour rather than the Tour Down Under in Australia - that's be a bit too early for me," he admits.
"The Tour of Flanders is a really cool race to do and I'd love to go back. I'd even love to try Paris-Roubaix too but I know that is a little bit too risky for a Grand Tour rider. I also wouldn't really have much chance of success.
"I'm not a pure climber and I'm a good bike handler thanks to my mountain bike skills, so I think I can do something good at the Tour of Flanders. I was 25th last year, helped the team and gained a lot of experience. We'll have a better Classics squad next year with the arrival of Michael Valgren, Matti Breschel Oscar Gatto and with [Alexey] Lutsenko stronger but I'd still like to be in the team.
"Yeah, it's risky but training at home can be risky too. I'm ready to take a few risks this year and hope it means I finally show what I can really do."