In August, nearing the end of a long season, a rider's motivation has the tendency to wax and wane. In Sint-Pieters-Leeuw on Friday morning, Michael Valgren (Astana) breezily confessed that he was not exactly inspired by the fare that awaited him on stage 5 of the BinckBank Tour, a flat run towards Lanaken. Fortunately for the Dane, the final weekend of the race features two stages that seem better tailored to his dextrous talents.
"It depends. Some days the motivation is good and some days it's not so good. I'm motivated for tomorrow but on a day like today, I'd rather be on the couch relaxing, but you have to finish the stages because I get to the stages I want," Valgren told Cyclingnews. "But I'm motivated for the races in Canada too and I'm using this to get back into the race rhythm after the Tour de France. Hopefully I can be good there and finish the season strongly."
The early part of Valgren's year could scarcely have gone much better. Victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad meant that his spring was already success before the end of February, but he followed that breakout win with a fine fourth place finish at the Tour of Flanders and a canny victory at Amstel Gold Race.
Those results elevated the 26-year-old's status from that of future promise to a rather more immediate guarantee of success, and an orderly queue of suitors formed. Earlier this month, he confirmed that he will leave Astana for Dimension Data in 2019.
"I think Dimension Data are passionate about me and I can be the captain in the Classics," Valgren said. "I was also a captain here, but we had four or five captains, so I had to compete with my teammates a bit. At Dimension Data, I really feel the support I'm getting will be really big."
Valgren's assurance on the bike seems matched by his confidence off it. When he arrived to sign on at E3 Harelbeke in March, for instance, he responded in the affirmative when asked by speaker Michel Wuyts if he felt he could win the race. "Yeah, and the Ronde too," Valgren shot back. "Well, that's what I'll try to do. I'm not racing for fun. This is a tough sport and I want to show people I'm a tough guy."
One senses that the role of outright leader in the cobbled Classics will serve to inspire the Dane rather than to inhibit him.
"I'm not so worried about the racing, because I know when I'm strong enough I'll be up there," Valgren said. "What I like about Dimension Data is they have a really good lead-out train and they know how to put a guy in front in the important situations of the race.
"That's what I need – to be protected and be in the front when I need to be there. And then, when I need to push the pedals, I can do that by myself, more or less. That's also what Rolf [Aldag] liked, I can take my own responsibility and think by myself. That's one of the reasons they signed me, I think."
Cobbles and Ardennes
When the old World Cup series gave way to the WorldTour era, one-day riders were increasingly choosing to specialise in either the cobbled Classics or the Ardennes races. The feats of Valgren and Philippe Gilbert in recent seasons, however, seem to show a reverse in the trend of the previous decade or so. Twice a winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège as an amateur – and a solid performer in the elite version this year – Valgren is of no mind to pigeonhole himself purely as a man for the cobbles.
"I like to do everything, and I think I'm getting stronger every year. I don't think it's impossible to do both, liked I showed this year," Valgren said. "I was good in the Ardennes too, and I wasn't that bad in Liege. I was really close to hitting the front group, I just missed a bit of positioning on the Roche aux Faucons. Hopefully I can continue to do both. The thing I'd like to improve is my sprint, because it would be easier if I didn't have to try to go alone to the finish line every time."
Valgren's sparkling Spring campaign and relative youth place him among the list of names expected to be the fore on April Sundays in the years to come. When asked to name some of the riders he expects to compete against for the top honours in the prime of his career, he instantly responded with the names of two of his fellow countrymen – Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), who placed a sparkling second at the Ronde this year.
"The Danish guys are on fire this year and then we will see in the future. They are still young and super strong," Valgren said of this apparent golden generation of talent. "It's always good to fight against each other in the front and it's always fun to see your friends doing well. And if we're up there together, we can help each other even if we're not on the same team."
And, although Valgren will not continue with the team in 2019, Astana have not altered his programme in the final weeks of the current campaign. His schedule will include, as originally planned the GP Montreal and GP Quebec. "Astana is really good with that. They never want to flick you," Valgren said. "It's nice of them, so that's why I want to give my best in the final part of the year and leave the team in the best way possible."
With the BinckBank Tour taking in terrain familiar from Amstel Gold Race and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad over the next 48 hours, Valgren's motivation will hardly be lacking.
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