Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) looks all but certain to take overall victory in the Ruta del Sol after a strong showing on the three toughest stages of the race have propelled him into the overall lead following stage 4 on Saturday.
Second overall before the crucial stage 4, Fuglsang's long chase, almost unaided, at the head of the little group of GC favourites on the crunch climb of Hazallanas did not succeed in bringing back Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). But with overnight race leader Tim Wellens dropped and rapidly shedding time, Fuglsang pushed to maintain his goal of taking the overall lead.
The Dane was second on the Alcala de los Gazules uphill finish, second in the time trial and finally third on the toughest mountain stage in Granada on Saturday. Consistency has brought Fugslang within sight of what would be his first stage race victory since the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2017.
And with the hardest stages now behind him, the 33-year-old, slated to lead Astana in the Tour de France, oozed quiet confidence in his chances of outright success in one of February's toughest races.
"I hope to win the race tomorrow [Sunday], we have a super strong team, in almost every race we have done well this year and I think we can bring it home," Fuglsang said as he eyed what would be Astana's 11th victory of the season.
"There's quite a few climbs on the last stage, but on paper not so hard, I'm quite confident we should be able to manage tomorrow."
Astana set the pace in the first half of the 120-kilometre stage on Saturday, along the Purche climb, which was the first major difficulty of the day. Then on the second category Guejar Sierra ascent, immediately prior to Hazallanas, Fuglsang and his Kazakh squad, in particular Pello Bilbao and Ion Izagirre, managed to whittle down the group to just a dozen favourites. Their combined effort put Wellens, who lacked teammates, in a tough situation.
"It was perfect team work and luckily our plan worked out, we managed to put Tim Wellens and the whole team under pressure, leave him isolated," Fuglsang said. "It paid off with a little help from Mitchelton, when [Simon] Yates attacked the first time that was when Tim really had problems.
"He had to work and it really got possible to hit him and from there on it was just full speed ahead," he said.
It looked as if Fuglsang was not paying much attention to who got dropped from the chase group as he drove on with his teammate Izagirre. But the Dane insisted that the team tried to stay together, "to keep two guys on the [GC] podium, and it all worked out today."
Astana now have an iron grip on the overall after Izagirre regained contact. Fugslang leads and the Basque in second.
In the bigger scheme of things, Fuglsang says that Ruta del Sol represents another step in the right direction for his season and his career.
"Since the Olympics [in 2016, taking silver in the road race - ed], I felt more confident and I have a bigger role in the team. I'm improving still and slowly it's coming back to where I maybe once was," Fugslang said. "I'm super happy about that."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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