Of all the newspaper pull-outs and race programmes distributed in Belgium on Saturday morning, none had Michael Valgren down as even a one-star favourite for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The Danish rider, however, confirmed his emergence as a cobbled Classics rider with a stylish victory that was inspired in part by a certain Fabian Cancellara.
"I met him two days ago by coincidence," Valgren said of the three-time Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix champion in his winner's press conference in Meerbeke.
"I was out training before coming here really early and I was on a climb and Fabian came up riding and said 'hey, why are you training so early?' and I said I was going to Belgium. We talked for a few minutes and he said good luck. Maybe that was a lucky charm.
"He's the rider I was looking up to when I started racing, because he was also on Saxo Bank with Bjarne Riis and I'm Danish, it was a Danish team. He's won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, stages at the Tour de France and I just like his style on the bike and in races. He was always the guy I was looking up to."
Cancellara would certainly have been proud of Valgren's solo victory. It may have owed more to the tactical upper hand of his Astana team than brute physical superiority but it was no less worthy for it.
The 26-year-old had to respond to the attacks over the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg just to earn a lottery ticket for the finale, and his team turned out to be the strongest in the race. Having closed down threatening moves earlier on, Astana placed three riders in the group of 10 that led the race on the run-in to the finish. No one else had a teammate, and the trio were able to work over their opponents.
"I knew I had to go solo to win the race because for sure [Sep] Vanmarcke will be faster than me, also Greg Van Avermaet will be faster than me. [Sonny] Colbrelli was there as well so for me it was the only to go away," said Valgren.
"There were three of us: Oscar [Gatto] and [Alexey] Lutsenko who are faster than me. They had to choose a wheel for the sprint so it was up to me to try to attack. I tried one time but Stybar was very active in closing it down. When Vanmarcke tried, Stybar was also there straight away but I kept behind and I knew it was a super time because Vanmarcke had just attacked and I could counter that. There was a bit of a headwind so when you get just 10 metres, who is going to close that gap?
"That said, the last kilometre was really hard. It was a long race and my legs were burning but I had a good yell from the sports director and the guys in the back, so it was special, yeah."
It was special, too, because of the riders he put to the sword. This may be February, and only the introduction to the Classics, but the opening weekend is always fiercely contested and the names in that front group spoke for themselves. Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke, Stybar, Naesen - four or five-star favourites who'd commanded plenty of column inches.
"I don't know if it made me nervous it makes me more excited," Valgren said of his company. "They are the big names, but I also know my own qualities and my own limits. It's the big guys that I'm beating today. A win is always nice, even in a smaller race, but beating the top of the top is special."
On to the Tour of Flanders
The victory goes down immediately as the crowning achievement of Valgren's four-year professional career to date. His previous successes have all come on home soil, in the form of a national road race title in 2014 and two overall wins at the Tour of Denmark in 2014 and 2016.
"I think I have to wait a few hours for it to sink in, but it means everything," said Valgren. "It's a super big win for me and hopefully something I can build on and continue towards the next races."
Valgren has shown his pedigree in the Classics before but primarily in the hillier terrain of the Ardennes, finishing runner-up at the 2016 Amstel Gold Race. He turned pro with Tinkoff in 2014 but moved to Astana for 2017 when the Russian team folded, and that's when he started his journey down the cobbled Classics path.
After finishing 6th at E3-Harelbeke and 11th at the Tour of Flanders last year in his first cobbled campaign, the Omloop victory comes as confirmation of his ability on the punchy climbs and cobbles of northern Belgium.
"I moved to Astana because I wanted to see if I was good enough to make my own results and here you get your chances if you are strong enough and if you ask for it," said Valgren.
"We made a plan to see if I could do these races, especially me and Lars Michaelsen, the Danish sports director who did these races when he was a rider. He taught me a lot and now here we are. After one year here, it's a big win for me."
Valgren will line up again on Sunday at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne before returning to Belgium in March for an enhanced cobbled Classics campaign leading into the Tour of Flanders, and he'll try and hold his form through to Amstel Gold Race weeks two weeks later.
"They're my two biggest goals of the spring Classics," he said. "That's where I really need to be at my best."
It was, however, pointed out to him that no one in history has won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and gone on to win the Tour of Flanders in the same season.
"No one?" he responded. "We will have to see later this year then… I will try but of course people will be watching me a little bit more now."
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