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SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain (VN) — Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) delivered on nearly a half-decade of hype with a breakout top-10 performance at the Tour de France earlier this month.
The 28-year-old Dane rode to an impressive seventh in his first Tour riding as a protected team leader, making good on predictions that the former mountain biker could perform well over three weeks.
“I am super happy about the Tour. It was what I hoped to achieve during the Tour,” Fuglsang told VeloNews. “It was very important for me. It was one step I needed to take, to show that I could do it, rather than just talking about it, and believing I could do it. It was very important for the future.”
After leaving dirt racing behind following the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Fuglsang was immediately tipped for his grand tour potential. He posted some solid stage-race wins, including three times at the Tour of Denmark as well as the Tour of Luxembourg and the Tour of Austria.
During his previous grand tours, however, he rode in support of the Schleck brothers, first at Saxo Bank and later at Leopard-Trek. Following a promising 11th at the 2011 Vuelta a España, Fuglsang didn’t even race a grand tour last year, dealing instead with health problems and run-ins with former manager Johan Bruyneel, which he described as a “disaster.”
A switch to Astana for 2013 gave him team captain status. With Vincenzo Nibali targeting and winning the Giro d’Italia, Fuglsang had a clean shot at the Tour.
A solid climber and time trialist, Fulgsang rode with consistency over three weeks, punching into the top 10, and finished second in stage 9 behind Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp).
“To be honest, the Tour was better than I expected. Most riders, you always have one bad day. I was hoping to get through the Tour without losing too much on that bad day, but in the end, I didn’t even really have a bad day,” he said. “I had better ones, and some not as good; in the end, I was pretty consistent, and that’s what gave me the position in the end.”
Believing in Froome
The big buzz during this year’s Tour was whether or not anyone could afford to believe the performances of eventual winner Chris Froome (Sky).
Fuglsang said the majority of riders within the peloton believe the South African won the Tour without cutting corners.
“I think most guys believe him. I believe him,” Fuglsang said. “[Sky does] everything right. They spend so much time and money on studies on how to improve. You have to see how much they do to reach that level and what kind of effort [it takes] to reach that. Then you have to look at yourself and ask, ‘do I put as much an effort?”
Fuglsang said he can understand why fans and media question cycling’s performances in the wake of a string of devastating doping scandals, but he insists that the peloton is a different place than during the EPO era of the 1990s and 2000s.
“It looks crazy when Froome is flying up the mountains, but that is also because of his high cadence. It looks he’s flying,” he said. “Of course, he is going super strong; maybe it’s his style that makes him look even more incredible. I totally believe in him. In the end of the day, we are still talking small percentages.”
Racing against the domination of Froome and Sky was something Fuglsang admitted he had to manage carefully, especially considering he had little to count on from teammates once the road titled upward.
Rather than try to follow Froome, Fuglsang said he rode judiciously throughout the climbing stages, something that paid off as the Tour hit the Alps in the final week.
“I pushed myself a little too far at Ax 3 Domaines. Then I decided that I would go at my own pace. In the end, that paid off for me,” he said. “A few times, I got dropped long before Alberto (Contador), but on l’Alpe d’Huez, I came back to him. Also, on Ventoux, I was almost with him. I knew that I should not even try to go with Froomey when he was going full speed.”
Fuglsang said Team Sky and Froome have set the bar very high, but he said that only motivates him to try to reach that level in the coming years.
“It’s my goal to be able to compete against Froome and to challenge him. But you also see, he is at 110 percent with Sky; they are so professional, they do all they can, and they do it right,” he said. “This year, I took a big step, and I learned a lot about myself, and I can use that for the coming seasons.”
The Nibali factor
Despite his Tour success, Fuglsang fully expects to take a step back into a helper’s role in next year’s Tour.
Giro champion Nibali is the undisputed leader at Astana and is expected to target the Tour next year as a singular goal, meaning that Fuglsang will be relegated to the team’s second GC option. That’s something he’s not afraid of.
“It looks like Nibali will go to the Tour next year and I will go there to help him,” Fuglsang continued. “If we want to have a chance against Sky and Froomey, we have to start with the strongest possible team. So I will be there, ready to help if he is the strongest one of us. That’s what it looks like at the moment. I will get my chance at the other tours.”
Nibali was the only rider to beat Froome this season, winning Tirreno-Adriatico back in March.
Fuglsang said that victory, coupled with Nibali’s strong podium ride in the 2012 Tour, are encouraging signs the Italian may have what it takes to challenge Froome and Sky.
“With the level that Froome had this year, I don’t know if there are that many guys who can challenge him, especially because he has such a strong time trial. Nibali is one of the guys who can try and one of the guys who can come closest,” he said. “If Nibali is 100 percent, he can challenge him. Whether he can win, that’s another thing. It’s still a bike race, and we saw even this year, Team Sky also makes mistakes. You have to have the team to be there to take advantage of that. I believe that we could do it.”
Nibali is currently reloading for a run at the Vuelta next month, and Fuglsang is expected to go as well. The Vuelta wasn’t originally on his schedule, but following Nibali’s decision to race the Vuelta to win, Astana wants to bring a stacked team to the Spanish tour.
For Fuglsang, it’s all about showing signs of improvement and building for the future. He’s hoping someday he might be able to stay closer to Froome when the attacks come.
“I wasn’t there for long,” Fuglsang said with a laugh when describing Froome’s attacks. “He was just the strongest, especially in the Pyrénées. On Mont Ventoux, he was incredible that day. Hats off for him. In general, I can look back on the Tour and be happy about that.”