The Vuelta a España seems to throw up revelatory results every year, and the 2019 edition of the race was no exception. Carl Fredrik Hagen (Lotto Soudal) was among the stand-out performers in September, taking eighth place in Madrid at the end of his first-ever Grand tour.
The Norwegian, who made the step up from the Continental team Joker Icopal this year, rode a remarkably steady race for a debutant, moving into sixth overall in Andorra, and never looking in danger of dropping out of the top 10 over the remaining 12 stages.
Speaking at the Tour of Guangxi on the final race day of his 2019 season, Hagen said he's thrilled with how his WorldTour debut has gone, noting that he didn't expect any big results when he kicked off his campaign at the Tour Down Under.
"This season has been much better than I expected," Hagen told Cyclingnews in Guilin. "It's my first year at the WorldTour level, so this year was a learning year for me. I didn't expect any results, but things have been great the whole season, actually.
"And the curve is still moving up, so I'm happy with the season. I wanted to finish good and now we're looking forward to next year."
Hagen only seemed to improve as the year went on, something of an anomaly for those making the step up from the Continental circuit to the top level of the sport. Top 20 placings at the Volta ao Algarve and Tour de Romandie preceded third place on the final mountain stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné, a top 20 at the Tour de Pologne, and then the big one in Spain.
Racing for 21 stages was an entirely new experience for the 28-year-old, who was used to riding stage races of four to seven days during his four years at Norwegian teams Sparebanken Sør and Joker.
"I never raced more than 8 days before the Vuelta, so I didn't know what three weeks was. But I said before the Vuelta that top 20 could be possible if everything was 100 per cent.
"And then to do eighth place… Well, if you told me before the race, I would be laughing at you. So, yes, that was just three fantastic weeks for me and also for the team. It's a good start for my pro career, and we can build on this for the next years."
Before his year with Lotto, Hagen showed glimpses of what was possible, taking two eighth places at the Arctic Race of Norway, as well as a fourth place at the Tour of Norway last season. Going forward, general classifications – both at Grand Tours and shorter stage races – are the aim, he said, though a couple of one-day races stand out too.
"I really want to be a good GC rider. Not only in one-week stage races, but also in the Grand Tours. So that's my main objective for the future. I want to do a Grand Tour and a lot of one-week stages races next season – they will be by main objectives," he said.
"For sure, I'm starting to think about next year. I've not planned the details yet, but as soon as we're finished here, we'll start planning. We have the Olympics and Worlds with courses that fit me very well, so those races will be important for me."
After turning professional later than most riders, there's a sense that Hagen is keen to make his way to the top as quickly as possible. Given his already startling upward trajectory, it looks like it won't be too long before he gets there.
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