Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) had never won a WorldTour race before this week, but he ends the Critérium du Dauphiné with three – two stages and the overall – tucked in his jersey pocket. Liberated at Astana by the departure of Vincenzo Nibali, the Dane's assertion at the start of the year that he wanted to improve on his best-ever Tour de France result, seventh in 2013, now looks very reasonable indeed.
Fuglsang, who snatched the Dauphiné from Richie Porte on a dramatic final day in the Alps, has spent the majority of his career as a domestique, spending his first few seasons alongside the Schleck brothers. He moved to Astana in 2013 and, although the door was open for him to grab his Tour de France result, he soon slotted into a support role for Vincenzo Nibali.
"I tried to be leader before in 2013, without having a big team behind me, and from there on I've been working for Vincenzo for many years and without having the big success myself – and sometimes also even having Vincenzo as a rival within the team," Fuglsang said in his winner's press conference in Bonneville, at the foot of the Plateau de Solaison.
"To have this opportunity now is perfect, and it's a big motivation for me. Also my silver medal at the Olympic Games last year gave me huge motivation. I showed myself that once I get the chance I can perform and deliver."
The leadership door swinging open was the biggest factor in paving the way for this success, but the 32-year-old added that everything has come together perfectly for him to grasp the opportunity with both hands.
"After that I think it's the little details that have made the difference, the little details that that hadn't been in my favour in the past," he said. "The fact that I recently became a father has also given me, in some way, added strength."
One thing he ruled out was banned substances. One French journalist in Fuglsang's post-stage press conference felt the rich vein of form warranted an explanation.
"You don't have to have doubts about my performance. I think cycling has changed over the years and that's also one of the reasons I can do this result today," Fuglsang responded calmly. "I stand for clean cycling and I always say I ride clean. We're on a good way in cycling, it's been a long, hard fight and we should never stop fighting."
Fuglsang never stopped fighting as he made his way up the second half of the final climb to Plateau de Solaison on Sunday's final stage, and it was striking that he rode away from three-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome so convincingly. Froome did fall away and even lost ground to the likes of Louis Meintjes and Emanuel Buchmann, but Fuglsang's achievement can be measured in the way he barely ceded a second to the resurgent Porte, who started to pick off the other favourites.
The Dauphiné is, of course, the most reliable yardstick by which to assess and predict what might happen in the Tour de France, and Fuglsang saw encouraging signs.
"This year Froome is not on his level as before – that's my impression," he said. "It seems like he's still struggling a little bit for sure, not the Froomey we're used to seeing, winning every race that he starts. Contador also doesn't seem to be at his top, top.
"But there are still 20 days to go and a lot can happen. Maybe I'm too far ahead now, maybe also Richie is too good now. There's a long way until Tour is finished. But for those two guys, for the usual level, we'd expect more."
At the start of the year few would have mentioned Fuglsang in the same breath as the likes of Froome, Porte, and Contador, and many might have doubted even his credentials for the top 10 with such a surplus of viable candidates. The Dane is now firmly in the frame, though he is not letting himself be carried away by the events of the past week.
"In 2013 I did seventh on GC, and at the start of the year, my hope was to improve that. It's not an easy goal, to maybe come top five. It's going be a huge fight at the Tour. Improving my seventh place overall is still going to be my objective for the Tour."
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