After a week of team setbacks and despite the weather worsening notably on Mount Etna, Jakob Fugslang (Astana) was in a much-improved mood at stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia, telling reporters that he had a “good test and the team did well”.
Up to now, Astana’s Italian Grand Tour ride has been a tumultuous one for all the wrong reasons, with Yuriy Natarov and Vadim Pronskiy withdrawn after they came into contact with teammate Zhandos Bizhigitov, who tested positive for COVID-19, and Rodrigo Contreras and Jonas Gregaard Wilsl drafted in as last-minute replacements.
On Saturday, Miguel Angel López, who might well have been Fugslang’s right-hand man in the Giro, crashed out injured, and Fuglsang finished a severely below expectations 100th in the opening time trial, with the Dane summing up that it had been a “day to forget”.
Sunday hardly went better though, as yet another top Astana rider, Alexandre Vlasov – the hugely promising young Russian who had helped Fugslang to victory at Il Lombardia – had to withdraw, this time with stomach problems.
But on Monday, even as wind and rain lashed the Etna summit finish, Fuglsang and Astana’s luck finally improved, with the Dane oblivious to the fast-darkening skies and turning in two blistering attacks on the ascent of the Sicilian volcano.
Fuglsang could not or would not follow Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) when the Dutch racer attacked close to the summit finish. But Fuglsang had made his own sharply crafted move some seven kilometres from the line. Then the Dane, once recovered, was the fastest of the favourites to respond to Trek-Segafredo leader Vincenzo Nibali’s lone rasping move, 2.5 kilometres from the line, and he had strength enough, too, to come over the top of ’The Shark’ and make his own brief dig for glory.
As if that was not promising enough, Fugslang led in the chasing group of favourites behind Kelderman for a fifth-place at the finish, a result that meant having started the Giro in 100th place on Saturday, and moved up to 47th on Sunday, he made another massive gain on Monday, to ninth overall, 1:13 down on new leader Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
“It was a super difficult day with the small cities, partly good roads and partly really terrible roads but the boys did a brilliant job for us to keep me in front specially and we had to avoid problems,” Fuglsang told reporters after donning a jacket and mask.
"Then in the final, it was really windy, so it was difficult to do much. I think we are going to have to change our weather forecast program, because they said it wasn’t going to be windy on the climb.
“But it was a good day, it was a pity with Geraint Thomas crashing and getting dropped.”
Fuglsang said mid-stage he asked the Welshman about it and Thomas replied he was OK, although, as the Dane wryly pointed out, “You never know if you get the real answer,” and indeed Thomas then cracked badly. “But that’s never the way you want to gain time.”
Returning to his own case, he concluded, “For me, at least, today was a good test and we did good.”
Although Fuglsang's palmares is replete with major successes, it’s also true that Grand Tours have been his least profitable hunting ground for now and the jury thus has to remain ‘out’ at least for now, in terms of what this early strong performance on Mount Etna by the double Dauphine winner might precede.
In 14 Grand Tour appearances, the Dane has placed in the top 10 just once, when he took seventh overall at the 2013 Tour de France. His one day as a Grand Tour leader dates from even further back, the 2011 Vuelta a España, when Leopard-Trek took the opening team time trial and their young Dane was given the honour of crossing the line first.
Last year, Fuglsang took an impressive stage in the Vuelta, though, at La Cubilla - the first Grand Tour stage victory of his career - and his twelfth overall in his sole previous Giro ride in 2016 came despite helping Nibali to overall victory, as well. Even prior to the events of Etna, Nibali himself has tipped Fuglsang for a strong showing in this year’s Giro, and on Monday’s evidence, Fuglsang’s former teammate looks to be 100 per cent correct.
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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