With his first victory in almost five years, Jakob Fuglsang underlined his Tour de France credentials on stage 6 of the Criérium du Dauphiné, but the presence of Fabio Aru in the front group of four suggested leadership will be a complicated concept for Astana this July.
With Vincenzo Nibali leaving to pastures new and Aru targeting the Giro d'Italia, Fuglsang was promised captaincy for the Tour, though a knee injury to Aru forced the Italian to skip the 100th Giro and muddied the waters.
The Dauphiné, therefore, has taken on added significance, with Fuglsang having that bit extra to prove, and Aru, six years younger and a proven Grand Tour winner, finding out whether he is a realistic contender for the Tour.
Both passed the first mountain test of the race with flying colours, Aru skipping away from Richie Porte and Chris Froome over the top of the Mont du Chat, and Fuglsang snatching the sprint once the mini group had come together on the descent.
"For sure it [the Dauphiné] decides something for the Tour," said Fuglsang in his winner's press conference La Motte Servolex, though he played down any notion that the leadership question has become a headache.
"I think no matter the outcome of this Dauphiné, we'll go to the Tour with two captains. Many things can happen in the Tour in the first week and it's never bad to have two guys up there in the front. We will have to try and play that card. The important thing is to come good out of this Dauphiné and show we're on the right track, and not have to stress before the tour, but prepare with a calm mind."
Tactics will have to be arranged not only for July but for the two summit finishes that bring the Dauphiné to a climax this weekend. Fuglsang now sits third overall, 1:15 down on Porte, while Aru is fifth, a further nine seconds back.
"Coming into this Dauphiné, me and Fabio were both selected as leaders, with me as the main leader, because he's coming back from injury and hasn't raced much this year. With both of us so close it's difficult to choose one over the other.
"Obviously I'd prefer to stay on podium but there are strong guys behind. We have to use it to our advantage and play it smart, and see what we can get out of it."
In any case, Aru delivered perhaps the most surprising performance of the day. The Italian's climbing abilities are no secret, but, having not raced since March, his form was a big unknown. It was the same for Esteban Chaves, but while the Colombian attacked and then blew, Aru rode away from Porte and Froome over the top of the Chat.
"I think we saw today that Fabio has a really high level. I knew he'd be good – we were at a training camp in Tenerife almost until coming here, and I've seen he's training hard and was ready for the Giro. He just had to pick it up again, and for me it was obvious he was also ready," said Fuglsang.
"Today I had difficulties following him when he closed to me. He's maybe more of a pure climber than me, and on a steep climb like today he's probably the better of us when he's in condition. He looks ready and he looks strong."
A win for Scarponi
It seems strange that, before Friday, a rider of Fuglsang's calibre hadn't won for almost five years, and had never won a race at WorldTour level. The Dane finished seventh in the 2013 Tour de France, in his first season with Astana, but has largely slotted into a domestique role since then, until Vincenzo Nibali's departure opened up a window of opportunity.
Fuglsang said the Dauphiné win slots in just below his Olympic silver medal from last year as the biggest achievement of his career, but added that the result's significance wasn't purely personal, being as it was Astana's first since Michele Scarponi was tragically killed when he was hit by a truck.
"I think my Olympic silver is still above this one, but of course it's been more than five years since my last victory, a long time been fighting hard to try to get one. At the end of the day, just after the line I thought 'hmm another second place', but luckily the photo finish played in my advantage," he said.
"This victory is for me but also for the whole team. We didn't have so much luck this year so far. Everyone has been trying hard to get a win to honour Scarponi, and finally today I could take the victory, so it's also a victory for him and the whole team."
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.