With victories at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Ruta del Sol, plus stage wins at the Vuelta a España and Tirreno-Adriatico – not to mention a raft of podium placings – it’s little wonder Jakob Fuglsang (opens in new tab) describes 2019 as "the best year of my career".
Winless between 2013 and 2016, the Astana (opens in new tab) rider shot to prominence again with victory at the 2017 Dauphine and now, after a subdued 2018, he finishes the 2019 season as the number-three ranked rider in the world despite crashing on stage 1 of the Tour de France (opens in new tab) and suffering before eventually throwing in the towel on stage 16.
There are a number of factors behind Fuglsang’s rich vein of form, among them experience and a focused leadership role, but when we ask him, there’s one that stands out: food.
"I started eating more," he says simply. "It’s no great mystery – just more carbs, which means more fuel for the races and for training also.
"After last season, I was trying to reflect on what do to for 2019, and I was like ‘okay, I probably have to admit that sometimes I don’t get the maximum out of my training, because maybe I don’t eat enough, and I get home empty or I don’t manage to do the last workout in the right way.
"With the help of the team’s nutritionists, I’ve made a big improvement. In my eyes it has made a big difference, especially in the long hard races. In training as well, because I can train harder. It’s been a major change."
The relationship between professional cyclists and food is a complicated one. Spending several hours a day on a bike requires a calorie count that would make the average person wince yet, at the same time, with power-to-weight ratio the fundamental index of performance, being light is equated with being fast.
As Fuglsang himself notes: "It’s strange. As a rider, you always want to be skinny skinny skinny. [They say] ‘you need to be light, you need to be light’.
"I think, in the hunt of being light, maybe my nutrition has not been right."
The issue was thrown under the spotlight recently as Fuglsang's former teammate, Janez Brajkovic, wrote a remarkable blog in which he discussed his own experience of bulimia along with the extent of disordered eating in the peloton as a whole.
"It can be dangerous. I know Brajkovic has spoken about this. I’ve never had a problem with it. I’ve always been hungry and always been eating, but it’s been a question of eating the salad and the vegetables or eating a plate of pasta or rice and having those things on the side," Fuglsang says.
"For me, it’s just that I was hungry sometimes and wanted to eat and ate other stuff. Basically, I didn’t eat the right thing for the hard work. Maybe sometimes you think ‘ah tomorrow is an easy stage, or today was not so hard, so I’ll eat less’, but then the next day turns out to be super hard and you end up empty. At the end of the day, you have to realise that to perform well, you need energy."
'I have more belief in my abilities'
To go with the little extra weight, Fuglsang has also gained a great deal of self-belief over the course of the 2019 season.
It seems strange to think that, before his Dauphiné title in 2017, the biggest of his 12 victories was the Tour of Denmark, which he won three times. There were, of course, some stand-out performances during his first eight years at the top level of road cycling; Fuglsang finished seventh at the 2013 Tour de France, 12th at the 2016 Giro d’Italia and 11th at the 2011 Vuelta a España, along with fourth at the 2010 Lombardia and top-10 in a number of WorldTour stage races.
However, he never enjoyed the sort of full leadership role he does now, first riding with the Schlecks at Saxo Bank and then Vincenzo Nibali in his early years at Astana. He has also steadily gained in physical strength and race craft, having started out as a mountain biker. And then there's the nutrition.
Now 34, it may have taken some time, but Fuglsang has well and truly found his stride.
"Now, I have the feeling I have found the key for me to be at that level – and not only to be there now and then but to be consistent and repeat it again and again," he says.
"I learned a lot this year about how to do things and I hope I can repeat it next year, even though to do another season like this would be difficult. That’s still my goal, though; I still want to be better and chase bigger goals."
Several of those learning experiences came in the spring, and most at the hands of a certain Julian Alaphilippe.
Fuglsang won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but his classics campaign to that point had been characterised by near misses, with the Frenchman the constant thorn in the side.
Fuglsang finished second at Strade Bianche and second at La Flèche Wallonne but it was third place at Amstel Gold that stirred the most despair and yet the most hope.
"I made some mistakes, especially against Alaphilippe, and Amstel was a big one," Fuglsang says, recalling how the pair were away once again but allowed Mathieu van der Poel and others to come roaring back in the final kilometres.
"I ended up beating him in the sprint, and that shows me it’s possible for me to beat him in a sprint, even though I’m not a fast guy and he is. When you come to the finish after 250km, there are possibilities.
"I think now I have more belief in myself and my abilities. I would, let’s say, attack the finales in a different way. I have to use my strength, which is my endurance – I’m maybe not explosive but I can do longer attacks. I have to do that more and also take the risk to attack, and dare to do it."
Seven days later, he would solo into Liège from the top of the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons.
Fuglsang's one-day performances - he was also fourth at Il Lombardia - raise the usual question marks over where his strenghts lie. His Tour de France bid, like two years ago when he won the Dauphiné was ended by injury as he lay 9th overall after 15 stages.
In 2020, the Grand Tour focus will be relegated as the the Olympic Games, which take place on a hilly Tokyo course, take precedence for the Rio 2016 silver medallist.
"It’s not like I’m giving up on Grand Tours but it might be something that’s a little less important next year," he says.
"It’s difficult to choose one or the other because I still believe I can do well in the Grand Tours. I’m not saying I’m going to win one but I think top-five is realistic, and if you only focus on one-day races the season is quite narrow."
With just six days separating the end of the Tour de France and the Olympic road race, Olympic hopefuls face a tough choice over how to structure their campaigns.
"Maybe it’s better to do the Giro and use the Tour to build up for the Olympics, or maybe skip the Tour completely," Fuglsang reasons. "There has been a bit of talk about Lopez doing the Tour, and that would leave the Giro for me, so that could be a good option.
"I’d like to do the spring Classics and the Giro, then take a break and build up to the Olympics. That would be my ideal scenario but it’s difficult – there are too many nice races."
Wherever he goes, Fuglsang will be confident of success. He may be late to hit these heights but he insists he hasn't peaked yet.
"I still see there is room for improvement and to learn something and to believe maybe even more in myself than I’ve done already this year," he says.
“It’s partly due to the fact I came to the road relatively late, but I don’t feel like an old rider – only sometimes when I look around in the peloton and think ‘where are all the guys I used to ride with who I knew?’ All the guys from the Tour de France teams in 2010 and 2011 have stopped, and I’m the only one left.
“But on the other hand, you just have to look at [Philippe] Gilbert or [Alejandro] Valverde and I think I can still keep going for another few years – no problem.”
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