Opening Weekend is around the corner and Michael Valgren, it seems, is ready. The Dane caught the eye at the Volta ao Algarve with a strong showing on the summit finish at Alto da Fóia on stage 2, though he preferred to focus on the training and racing miles logged through the winter months.
"I just know that I did my homework in December and January – and in February too – so I know I’ve trained enough. I just need to find the freshness in the legs and be lucky. I know I’m pretty good," Valgren told Cyclingnews in Faro.
"But last year, I wasn’t feeling great in Ruta del Sol and then the next week I won on the Opening Weekend, so I don’t really compare too closely from year to year, because sensations can change in a week."
A year ago, Valgren’s triumph at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad heralded the beginning of a break-out Spring campaign. He would go on to win Amstel Gold Race and his wide body of work also included fourth place at the Tour of Flanders and a competitive display at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race he won twice as an under-23. Seventh place on the demanding Innsbruck World Championships circuit in September was a further indication of his dexterity.
Valgren will repeat the same formula this season, his first in the colours of Dimension Data, lining out in every Classic bar Paris-Roubaix, from Omloop this coming Saturday to La Doyenne in late April. It’s an exacting schedule but, rather than peak for any one Classic, the 27-year-old aims to be ready for every given Sunday.
"Hopefully I will have top shape next weekend and keep it until April 28, that’s what I’ve been training for," Valgren said. "I’ve trained like a maniac, to be honest, so I can have good form from Opening Weekend. I should be in as a good form as possible on Saturday and then I’ll try to maintain it until Liège. I did a lot of work before coming here."
After the demise of the World Cup in 2004, the Classics seemed to become an ever more specialised affair, with few riders minded to target events in both Flanders and the Ardennes, to the extent that Valgren was something of an outlier when he added the cobbled Classics to his programme during his first season at Astana in 2017.
The alteration to the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège has contributed to an altered landscape in 2019, with Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet among those likely to extend their Spring campaigns as far as La Doyenne. Valgren does not envisage, however, that this will in any way diminish their focus on the cobbled Classics.
"I don’t think so, I’m sure there’s plenty of guys who can do the same as me," he said. "It’s more that sometimes mentally it can be hard to force yourself to go deep every weekend. Some people might need a break in the head, but for sure Van Avermaet and these guys can also do it. We’ll see how it goes this year, but it will be good for all the races."
Dimension Data switch
Valgren’s race programme in 2019 is familiar – he started his campaign at the Tour Down Under for the fifth time in six years – but his environment is a new one. He was Dimension Data’s marquee signing for 2019, and with a new team comes a new role. At Astana, Valgren had some freedom; at Dimension Data carries the responsibility of outright leadership in the Classics.
"I enjoy it, but it’s still a new role," Valgren said. "At Astana, I was a leader but not the big leader. We still had three or four captains and some politics within the team, but here I’m more like the lone captain, or else together with Edvald [Boasson Hagen]. I like it. I try to take the responsibility on my shoulders, talk to the directors and mechanics after the race and all that stuff. I try to take that role on my shoulders and make it a better team."
In winning two Classics last year, Valgren has set a dauntingly high bar for himself in 2019, though he notes that victory will not be the sole measure of a successful campaign this time out. The Tour of Flanders may be the race he covets above all others, but consistency across the next six weeks is something to aim at.
"Of course, I’d like to say if I could win Flanders, everything would be nice, but it’s so hard to win these Classics," Valgren said. "I think I will have a happy Classics campaign if I go top 10 in three or four of them. Being stable and being up there in every race, that’s probably still big for me. I know the team want to win and I also want to win, but it’s still pretty new to me.
"It’s only my third year doing the cobbles. I’ve learned that I’m able to be up there with the best in these races, and hopefully I can fight for the win in one of them."