Jakob Fuglsang has given up chasing success in Grand Tours, at least for 2021, adding the Tour of Flanders to his spring Classics programme, with a stage victory at the Tour de France and an Olympic medal a higher priority than another top 10 GC result.
The 35-year-old Dane has chased Grand Tour success for almost a decade, only for crashes, misfortune and bad days to disrupt his aspirations and results. He finished seventh in the 2013 Tour de France and sixth in last year’s Giro d’Italia but is now tired of riding conservatively in the peloton.
Fuglsang won the 2019 Liège-Bastogne-Liège and last year’s Il Lombardia and wants to apply the same strategy to his 2021 season with Astana-Premier Tech. A silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where he was only beaten in the sprint by Greg van Avermaet, have left him hungry for success on the testing Mount Fuji course.
“I don’t want to just ride in the peloton and wait for the finale every day. I’m over doing that,” Fuglsang told Cyclingnews firmly when he talked about his 2021 ambitions.
“In 2021 I’d like to win a stage at the Tour, more than trying to repeat a top 10 in the GC. There are two reasons for that: the Olympics in Tokyo are a big goal and also because I know I can do a top 10 in the GC and it’s not worth much to me to repeat that. I’d rather try to win a stage, go for the mountains jersey or ride more aggressively. I want to select a day and go all in for it.”
Fuglsang’s success, like that of so many of his stage race contemporaries, is judged on their Grand Tour performances. Each July the Danish media descend on France to follow Fuglsang in the hopes he can be the next Dane to win the Tour after Bjarne Riis, only to be disappointed.
Fuglsang’s excellent results in the Classics do not get the same coverage.
“Grand Tours have so much impact on the sport and so if a rider like me doesn’t do well in a Grand Tour then people think you had a bad season. I was sixth in the Giro but people forget that I won Il Lombardia,” Fuglsang pointed out.
“Maybe my Giro result was not what I hoped for but if you ask me if my 2020 season was a good one, I say, 'hell yes!' I won another monument, I was on the podium at the Tour de Pologne and won in other moments of the season, despite all the complications due to COVID-19.
“If I’d focused 100 per cent on the Giro, then maybe there’d have been a different outcome. But I didn’t want to risk missing out on a chance when we started racing after the lockdown in case races in September and October were cancelled. That wasn’t the case and the likes of Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley hit a single peak for the Giro but I’ve no real regrets.”
Fuglsang’s desire for change, his past as a mountain biker and ability in the hardest one-day Classics have tempted him to try his hand on the cobbles and climbs of the Tour of Flanders. Astana does not have a packed Classics roster for the cobbles and so the Dane is able to push for a place in the team.
“My main objective for the first part of the season are the Ardennes Classics, there’s nothing new there but I think Flanders can suit many types of riders. I think it can also suit me,” Fuglsang said with curiosity and confidence.
“We’ve seen over the last few years that lots of different kinds of riders can be in the front these days, not just the cobbled Classics riders. Of course it depends on the way the race is ridden and the weather on the day but I think I can do something just like [Julian] Alaphilippe can, so why not try?”
Fuglsang famously finished second to then-teammate Lars Boom when the 2014 Tour de France included a stage on the wet cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.
“I also rode Flanders once too,” he pointed out.
“In 2016, I was 25th or something after working for Lars Boom. I was at the front until the finale and showed what I can do. Maybe I need to learn the race route better but I want to try it this year and maybe focus on it even more next year. It’s a way of perhaps adding another monument to my palmares.”
Not past his best yet
Fuglsang will turn 36 on March 22. Yet he only stepped up to WorldTour level in 2009 with Saxo Bank, so is convinced he is far from past his best.
The rapid arrival of a new, far younger generation of riders does not scare him. He wants to be around in 2022 when the Tour de France starts in Denmark and even until the next Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.
“I don’t feel I’m getting older. I definitely don’t feel I’ve reached my peak and I still look forward to riding my bike when I get up in the morning. I’ll keep going as long as I feel enthusiastic and as long as I’m competitive. I think I’ve got a few more good years in me,” he said.
“It’s a goal to be at the 2022 Tour de France which starts in Copenhagen and my home country, that’ll be special of course.
“My own finish line for my career is actually the 2024 Olympics. I’ll be 39 by then, but I can honestly see myself riding another three seasons. I came late to road racing and that’s why I perhaps don't feel tired of being a professional racing.
“Of course It’s not always the riders who decide on the length of their careers, the teams decide too and they don’t seem to want many old guys around but I’m confident I deserve my place in the peloton.”
Fuglsang has been at Astana for nine years. Miguel Angel Lopez has moved on to Movistar, while Aleksandr Vlasov has stepped into a leadership role and will target the overall classification at the Giro d’Italia. Fuglsang remains a trusted cornerstone of the team, despite the emergence of a secret investigation ordered by the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation into possible links between Fuglsang and disgraced coach Michele Ferrari. The CADF eventually decided against initiating disciplinary proceedings.
Fuglsang, Vlasov and a number of riders are all in the final year of their current contracts with Astana. The arrival of new Canadian title sponsor and part team owner Premier Tech has changed the balance of power in the team. The jersey remains the distinctive Kazakhstani blue but team manager Alexander Vinokourov has less control on the business side of the team, with Yana Seel now the managing director.
Fuglsang made it clear he would be happy to extend his contract and stay on beyond 2021, depending on the direction the team takes in the future.
“The team has changed and will change more going forward. I think it’s good to change and evolve and I think we’re going in a good direction. Change is always motivating,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of talented young guys alongside the cornerstones of the team like the Izagirre brothers and Alexey Lutsenko. It’ll be interesting to see what we can get out of them.”
Fuglsang believes he can help young riders like Valsov and talented new signings Samuele Battistella and Matteo Sobrero. “I think experience is still worth something,” he said in defence of his generation.
“I believe I give a lot to a team, in the way I do things and say in the way I help with equipment testing out on the road. I don’t think young guys have those skills. It’s a bit like a Formula 1 driver, who is quick but can also help develop the car during the season. I think I’m the same for Astana.
"Of course now there’s all the technology and data, the coaches and nutritionists too. You can teach the young guys a lot pretty quickly. But that’s not always a good thing because they get told everything and don’t know how to learn and improve on their own.
"But racing and winning doesn’t come out of the blue, it’s not a logical consequence or something you can learn from a book or online. I think experience still counts a lot in racing.”
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