Michael Valgren is on a roll in professional cycling, and he's hoping to keep the momentum going strong during his debut season with Dimension Data where he will experience a leading role in the Classics for the first time in his career. The Dane spoke with Cyclingnews in September about changing teams, becoming a leader, and his dreams of being the first Danish rider to win the elite men's road race at the World Championships.
Valgren spent his early career developing into a pro with Cult Energy, as did his compatriots; Magnus Cort, Mads Schmidt and Mads Pedersen. He experienced bigger successes after he jumped up to the WorldTour in 2014 with Tinkoff-Saxo, where he stayed with the outfit for three seasons. But most would agree that he had the best season of his career in 2018 while racing under Astana, with victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Amstel Gold Race, and a fourth place at the Tour of Flanders.
"Yes, absolutely, this has been the best season of my career so far," Valgren remembered his formative years while racing on the WorldTour. "I had a good season when I first turned professional: I won the Danish Championships and the Tour of Denmark, as a neo-pro with Saxo-Tinkoff in 2014. The next year wasn't too great, and then I had a break-through in 2016 when I was second in the Amstel Gold Race."
He made a move to Astana in 2017 but said that his first year didn't go as well as he had hoped results-wise. It was his second season this year where he saw his strengths in one-day races translate into results on paper.
"I signed a contract with Astana (2017), and I had a good season, even though I had no big wins, but I was very strong.
"I was really lucky that this year everything changed and I’ve been consistent ever since the start in Australia at the Tour Down Under, with my best sensations ever, and I’ve maintained a high level the whole season."
Outside of his winning performances during the Classics, Valgren said he felt great during stage races like the Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour de France and even at the BinckBank Tour, despite suffering from a bit of bad luck. He closed out the season with second at GP Plouay and with top 10s at the Canadian WorldTour races, setting himself up as a dark horse for the UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck.
A searing attack in the closing kilometres of the elite men's road race at Worlds netted him a seventh place behind winner Alejandro Valverde, runner-up Romain Bardet, Michael Woods and Tom Dumoulin, who finished in a sprint, and then Gianni Moscon, followed by Roman Kreuziger, who were all favourites for the mountainous parcours.
Valgren said that little things added up for him in 2018, but gaining maturity and confidence were the two most significant factors that turned his all-around strength into results this year.
"I'm one year older, getting better at positioning, having more confidence in myself, and my girlfriend is a sports psychologist," Valgren said. "Having a good atmosphere on the team, too. It can be many small things that add up that make a good season. It's hard to say exactly, but I hope that I can continue this success this year."
The switch to Dimension Data
Dimension Data, in August, confirmed signing Valgren on a two-year deal. He told Cyclingnews that deciding to leave Astana after having his best-ever season was a difficult decision, but that the team's director Rolf Aldag outlined a plan that would give him more support in his Classics goals than he had in previous years on other teams.
"I'm nervous every year, changing teams or not; I always think to myself, 'Am I still young enough to develop more next year or will I be the same, or not do any better.'
"But Dimension Data made me an offer, and I spoke with Rolf Aldag, and I was able to see exactly how they would plan to use me on the team, and how they would use the riders to help me, and I was really fancy about that, which was one of the big differences [compared to Astana, ed.]. Dimension Data were eager to get me, and they showed that they had a lot of confidence in me to make some big results."
Valgren said that Astana gave him plenty of chances to win races, but that there were too many riders vying for victories at the same races, and so fewer resources were available to support one rider's goals.
"I'm not saying that Astana didn't give me a chance as well, but maybe we had too many captains, and so it was a little bit up to yourself to make a result," Valgren said.
"Astana shoots with hails, we had many big guys for the Classics, whereas at Dimension Data, we will shoot with one missile – hopefully that will be me."
Dimension Data have extended with Ben O'Connor, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Ben King, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish. Valgren leads the new signings that also include Danilo Wyss (BMC Racing), Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott), Stefan De Bod (neo-pro), Rasmus Tiller (Team Joker), Lars Ytting Bak (Lotto Soudal), Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Gino Mader (neo-pro).
"I will have a good team around me, that will support me so that I don't have to use up my energy," Valgren said. "That is where I think the team will be very good for me. They also have a good sprint team, and they know how to put their sprinter into a good position, and they can do the same in the Classics. I can cruise control until I have to go."
Asked if he had any regrets about leaving Astana, Valgren simply said, "No."
Looking toward the 2019 season, Valgren said he that it's hard to choose between an all-Classic focus or mixing up his calendar with the Grand Tours and bigger stage races. He told Cyclingnews that hopes to perform well in the Classics again, but that has always wanted to race the Giro d'Italia. He that it would be difficult to focus on both because they are both in the spring. Overall, Valgren said that he's flexible about his calendar because he's capable of performing well in all types of events and on varied terrain, all season long.
"My problem is that I want to do well in everything," Valgren said. "Classics-wise, I turned professional because I won Liège [under-23 version, ed.] twice, and so that has a special place in my heart, and I want to perform well there as a professional.
"I'd also like to do the Giro because I've never done it, and the breakaways tend to stay away more, whereas, the Tour de France is so locked-in. It would be nice to have a chance to win a Grand Tour stage at the Giro d'Italia.
"It's super hard to do an entire Classics program, finish at Liège, and then go to the Giro d’Italia. I need to sit down, look at the calendar, and get agreements from the directors on how we should do things. Maybe I will do, again, what I did this season. I can do almost any races, so if the sports director wants me to do another type of program, I'm happy to hear about it, and I'm willing to change. I think I could say the races that I want, and they will consider it with constructive debate. It's important to have a happy rider."
Valgren acknowledged that his ability to negotiate his calendar with Dimension Data directors is primarily because of the success he had during the 2018 season. He has become one of the team leaders for the Classics and says the new-found role will be a little bit daunting.
"It’s a little bit scary, actually," Valgren said. "Plus, now, I feel like people depend on me; I need to make great results. Before, I didn't have to get top results, and so there was less pressure.
"I'm not too worried, because if I do my training from home, I'm capable of being at the front with the best. After that, it's a matter of having the form in the races and the luck of the day, and if I can keep doing what I did this year, I will win races next year too. I think I can be up there in the races that I'll be all-in for."
Yorkshire World Championships
Valgren looked ahead to the UCI Road World Championships in Yorkshire, where he said the course suits his abilities and strengths as a rider.
The 285km race will start in Leeds, and the peloton will wind their way into the Yorkshire Dales before a trio of significant climbs come one after another. The race will finish on seven small circuits in Harrogate.
"We are looking forward to next year's World Championships in Yorkshire. It's up and down all day, enough to make it hard. Worlds is a long race, and you need a big engine for a race like that," said Valgren. He hopes to be the next Danish rider on the podium at the World Championships, since Matti Breschel secured the silver medal in 2010 and bronze medal in 2008. Before that, it was Bo Hamburger on the podium in 1997, Jørgen Marcussen in 1978, and Leif Mortensen in 1970.
Valgren aims to do better than a place on the podium and be the first Dane to win the rainbow jersey in the event.
"We have never won the World Championships," Valgren said. "Matti Breschel was second and third. Next time, maybe, it's going to be me. Next year, it will be me."
Ask what he has to do to be the rider everyone works for on the Danish team at the 2019 World Championships in Yorkshire, Valgren said he has to have another winning season.
"I have to have a great season," he said. "I have to work more on my sprint so that the national team trusts me in a small group, but the answer is simple - I just have to be the best."