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Imagine starting to race your bike less than four years ago, and end up riding into the top-10 overall in your first-ever grand tour.
Well, that’s exactly where Carl Fredrik Hagen (Lotto-Soudal) finds himself two weeks into the Vuelta a España.
The 27-year-old Norwegian is the peloton’s unlikeliest grand tour rookie. And with just over one week to go, he is hanging with the big boys deep into the longest race he’s ever done. No one’s more surprised than he is.
“I didn’t expect to be in the top-10 in the second week,” he said at Saturday’s start. “I will try to suffer as much as I can and do my best.”
The 27-year-old WorldTour rookie is one of the sensations of this Vuelta, and his progression in the sport is nothing short of remarkable.
The lean Norwegian didn’t even take up mountain biking until he was 22, two years older than Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Emirates), another grand tour rookie who is also making waves with two stage wins and third overall.
Hagen is one of those natural-born athletes who dabbled in all kinds of sports, but never expected to be pro in anything. In his teens, he played soccer and raced cross-country skis. After finishing his studies, he finally started to ride the mountain bike. After two years of smashing it off-road, he got his first taste of racing on pavement with Thor Hushovd’s development team in 2015.
Flash-forward to stage 14 at the Vuelta, and Hagen is eighth overall at 7:33 behind Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma).
It’s a remarkable trajectory in a season that’s seen WorldTour rookies dominating across all kinds of terrain. Unlike many of his younger peers, Hagen is old enough to order a beer.
“Honestly, it feels a little weird to see my name amongst all those big guys, being a rider that only started cycling at the age of 22,” Hagen said. “I’ve had some opportunities and I’ve taken my chance.”
Some eye-opening results at the Continental level in 2017-2018, including a stage victory and a podium at the Tour Alsace and a win at the Tour du Jura Cycliste, opened the door to Lotto-Soudal, which took a chance to sign the unconventional pro last fall.
“Belgian is the land for cycling, and there are a lot of experienced guys I can learn from,” he said at the beginning of the season. “I started really late with cycling. I only started racing on the road about three and a half years ago.”
Like anyone coming late to the sport, riding in the peloton and fighting for position proved a real challenge. His natural class shone through, and he posted enough early season results to get on Lotto-Soudal’s long-list for the Vuelta.
He joined other teammates at a high-altitude training camp in Livigno, Italy, to prepare for the Vuelta. He rode up such climbs as the Passo Stelvio for the first time, and raced to 18thoverall at the Tour de Pologne to secure his grand tour call-up.
Like his other teammates, Hagen was stricken with grief following the tragic racing death of teammate Bjorg Lambrecht during the Poland tour. Before the Vuelta, Hagen retreated to home in Norway to be with family and friends to grieve and return his focus to racing ahead of the Vuelta.
Lotto-Soudal came to the Vuelta without a GC leader, opening up opportunities for everyone on the team.
Hagen was finding his legs in the first week of what was a very difficult Vuelta, and rode surprisingly well up the Mas de la Costa summit, finishing at 5:00 back with WorldTour veteran Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo), ending the first week quietly in 22ndoverall.
That would already be enough for most grand tour rookies, but he rode into the Vuelta’s big winning breakaway the very next day in stage 8, finishing with the winning group into Igualada in the rain, taking back more than nine minutes to the GC group.
That catapulted Hagen some 15 places upward into seventh on GC. Unlike most riders who took big gains in breakaways only to feel the tug of gravity, Hagen keeps hanging in the rarefied air of the top-10. He actually moved up to sixth overall after enduring the Andorra stage after crossing the line 11th.
Even more remarkable was Hagen’s time trial performance in Pau, when he rode to 32nd, fast enough to defend sixth. Hagen said it was his eighth time trial race ever.
“There’s still a long way to go but it’s definitely a good start,” he said. “It will be hard to defend my position but if I keep feeling good and keep recovering well, I am for sure really motivated to keep fighting for a good position on GC.”
At the start of the Vuelta, he signaled a top-20 as a realistic goal. So far, he’s on track to surpass that. On Friday’s stage up Los Machucos, the peloton’s most unlikely grand tour rookie held steady to finish 19thon the stage, enough to remain eighth overall.
Two hard days coming up in Asturias this weekend could spell the end of his Spanish fairytale. Even if he succumbs to the rigors of the third week, Hagen has more than proved himself worthy of a spot in the WorldTour.
“We will see day by day,” Hagen said at the start line Saturday. “I have to ride smart, I’d really like to be in good position in Madrid, but there are a lot of mountains before I get there.”