Michael Valgren has moved to the Astana team for 2017, confident that his second place at the Amstel Gold Race and strong showing in the cold at Liege-Bastogne-Liege has earned him the right to be a protected rider and team leader in the sport's toughest Classics.
The 24-year-old Dane had several offers for 2017 after the demise of the Tinkoff team, with Team Sky also interested in his talents. However after Bjarne Riis failed to create a new WorldTour team, Valgren opted for Astana. The Kazakhstan team have also signed fellow Dane Matti Breschel and directeur sportif Lars Michaelsen to help Valgren. With climber Jesper Hansen and Jakob Fuglsang also at Astana, the Danes have their own little unit in the Kazakhstan-sponsored, Italian-staffed team.
"In the last three years I've been a worker for other riders most of the time but I want to see if I'm a winner, to see if I'm good enough," Valgren told Cyclingnews at the Astana get together in Tuscany, where he was fitted with his new Argon 18 bike and got to know his new teammates.
"Astana believes in me. I had other offers but there's always a lot of talking in cycling. There's never any real money on the table unless they really want you. I chose this team because I knew I could have my chances. I look young but I think I'm a quick learner too and I feel ready to step up.
"Astana race aggressively and so do I. That's the best way because it's wrong to bet on one horse in the biggest Classics. If we go on the attack I don't think the other teams will see us a big rivals but I think we can surprise some people with our strength as a team. Matti is often unlucky with crashes but he has years of experience in the cobbled classics and is always where you have to be at the right moments. Lutsenko is a huge talent and he's strong. We have a strong team and strong leaders."
Valgren my have a baby face and will only turn 25 in February but has been a professional since 2011 and joined Tinkoff in 2014, a protégé of former team owner Bjarne Riis. He has finished both the Vuelta a Espana and this year's Tour de France and has ridden Liege-Bastogne-Liege three times. He is no debutant. He revealed he will be based in Monte Carlo for the 2017 season and intends to put pressure on himself to perform. He may also test his ability in the cobbled Classics and even on the harsh cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.
"I think you need pressure on yourself if you want to achieve your goals. You have to be realistic of course too but I think I am," he explained.
"It's not easy being only 24 and being team captain in a race like Amstel Gold. It's a big step and so maybe my mental strength is something I need to work on with a mental coach or something. Cycling is not only about having the strongest legs, you need a strong mind too."
Flash backs of finishing second in the Amstel Gold Race
Valgren won the Flèche du Sud stage race in 2013 and the under 23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2012 and 2013. He showed his potential at home in Denmark by winning the Post Danmark Rundt in both 2014 and 2016. This year he won the key hilly stage to Vejle and then defended his lead in the time trial stage. He is also a former Danish national champion.
Valgren made the international headlines by finishing second to Enrico Gasparotto at the Amstel Gold race. Valgren courageously surged across to the veteran Italian over the top of the Cauberg climb but was beaten in the two-rider sprint. A week later he backed up his second place with 14th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He finished in the front group that was only 12 seconds behind winner Wout Poels despite the terrible conditions and aggressive racing.
"I'm still getting flash backs about the Amstel Gold Race finish…" Valgren joked to Cyclingnews.
"I was happy with the result, second was good, but I've also thought a lot about what I could have done differently. There's one thing I'd change: not waiting for the sprint. I should have eased up, played with Gasparotto a little and see what happened in the sprint. Instead I just went full gas from the Cauberg to the finish.
"I thought Gasparotto was faster than me in the sprint but looking at the video of the finish I can see that he wasn't actually that much faster and I wasn't that much slower. I think I could have beaten him if I'd ridden the finale better.
"Of course I also regret that I didn't attack first on the Cauberg. I was one of the strongest but I didn't believe in myself enough. But I know that being second that day and my strong ride at Liege-Bastogne-Liege is why I'm here at Astana and with expectations to do even better next year."
Riis and Tinkov
Valgren describes Bjarne Riis as one of is mentors but also reveals he got on with Oleg Tinkov when the volcanic Russian businessman sacked Riis and took direct control of the Tinkoff team. Riis and Tinkov polarise opinion but Valgren sees qualities in both of them.
"I've always had a good relationship with Bjarne Riis and so I waited a long time to see if he was able to create a team for next year. But in the end I couldn't wait any longer," Valgren revealed.
"Now I'm happy Bjarne has a new Continental team and a new project. I like him as a person and he was the guy who discovered me and believed in me. Of course I know there are people who love him and people who hate him. If you want to read bad things about Bjarne you can do that because there are a lot of people who hate him. But I'm not one of them.
"I actually liked Oleg too because he was always direct. He called an asshole an asshole. Sometimes that's not nice to hear but we're all grown up and so should be able to understand that. It can be hard for some people, especially young riders, but Tinkov had a good side and a bad side. I enjoyed being on his team and we had fun together. Maybe I was lucky that he liked me as a rider."