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CAGNES-SUR-MER, France (VN) — One name missing during this year’s Tour de France is that of Italian Vincenzo Nibali.
The Astana rider blazed through the Giro d’Italia and was the only rider able to take down Chris Froome (Sky) this season, knocking him back at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Yet Nibali is steering clear of the Tour this year, instead choosing to recover from his Giro performance to later reload for the Vuelta a España and a run at the world title on home roads in September.
Boldly stepping into the void is Jakob Fuglsang, a highly touted, yet untested Dane who gets his first major shot at leading a grand tour.
“Right now, it’s all about the GC,” Fulgsang told VeloNews. “I am not going to try to win a stage to blow up my chances for the GC. The stages are interesting, and there will be chances, but now I want to stay calm and see what happens in the overall.”
The 28-year-old is one of those riders who’s gained plenty of hype, and backed it up with solid results, but has not quite delivered in the grand tours. A former top-level mountain biker, Fuglsang switched to the road full-time after competing on dirt at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Since then, he’s made steady progress, winning the Tour of Denmark three times in a row, as well as other shorter stage races, such as the Tour de Luxembourg, the Tour of Slovenia, and the Tour of Austria.
Those results have led many to tout Fuglsang as a future grand tour winner. Yet in four previous grand tour starts, he’s been unable to punch into the top 10. His best was 11th at the 2011 Vuelta a España.
Of course, one reason for that is that he was riding to support former teammates Andy and Fränk Schleck at Saxo Bank. Fuglsang also followed the Schlecks to Leopard-Trek in 2011.
He quickly realized that if he ever wanted to have a real shot at GC, he would have to find a new team. Problems with former team manager Johan Bruyneel last year at RadioShack only hastened his departure from the team.
Astana picked up Nibali, who will lead the team for the major tours, but there is plenty of room for Fuglsang to move as the team’s No. 2.
“I will get plenty of chances to lead at this team, which was not the case on other teams,” Fuglsang told VeloNews earlier this year. “Nibali is a proven champion. I still have to prove myself in the grand tours, so it’s natural that he is the man for the team.”
With Nibali focused on the Giro/Vuelta/worlds treble this year, Fuglsang has the chance of a lifetime to step up.
Team officials admit that aiming for the yellow jersey is unrealistic, but said Fuglsang is the “darkest of the dark horses” for a shot at the podium.
Astana sport director Dimitry Sedoun, speaking on the team’s website to outline its Tour strategy, said the team is waiting to see how far Fuglsang can go.
“We look at ourselves as dark-horse outsiders for a good finish in Paris,” Sedoun said. “Fuglsang showed at the Critérium du Dauphiné how well he can ride when he has proper training and confidence, and he is very motivated to do well. The pressure will be on the big favorites in this race, and we are content to come in with a strong team and ride well.”
Fuglsang was solid through three stages on Corsica, including making some moves that proved he has good legs, but Astana crumbled in Tuesday’s team time trial, riding to 16th out of 22 teams. The squad lost nearly a minute to its top GC rivals, knocking Fuglsang on his heels even before the Tour ramps up.
Andrey Kashechkin, who pulled out with stomach problems, was supposed to be one of the big engines for Astana in the TTT, but he abandoned on Monday.
On Wednesday, Fuglsang tried to be philosophical about the losses.
“We were hoping to lose less. At the end of the day, everybody did what they could,” he said. “It was a pity, but as far as the race goes, there is still a lot of racing ahead of us. You think of 25 kilometers, you cannot lose that much. But with Orica and Quick Step going almost 60 kph, time losses were pretty big in the end.”
Despite its time loss on Tuesday, and even without Nibali, Astana brings a solid squad to the Tour.
Behind Fulgsang, there is Janez Brajkovic, the skinny Slovenian who has finished in the top 10 of the Tour before with ninth last year. For stage hunters, the team also has Fredrik Kessiakoff and Enrico Gasparotto.
The team will be waiting to see how things shake out on GC after coming out of the Pyrénées, and promises to be more aggressive in the second half of the race, with a strategy to attack and hunt stages along the Atlantic coast and going toward the Alps.
Somewhat surprisingly, considering that he has a top 10 in the Tour and Fuglsang doesn’t, Brajkovic said he’s racing to support his Danish teammate. That could change if he’s feeling great and Fuglsang goes south.
“We’ll see after the first mountain stage. Now we are riding for Jakob. He is performing well, so hopefully that will go well,” he said. “We will see. I do not know yet.”
Fuglsang also knows this could well be his first and last shot at leading outright for the Tour.
Next year, Nibali is all but certain to make the Tour his central focus of the season. That will mean Fuglsang will slip back into domestique duty if he returns to the Tour. Another option the team is considering is to send Fuglsang to the Giro or Vuelta, and aim for outright victory.
As Fuglsang said himself, it’s one step at a time.
“It’s about staying calm and taking it day by day,” he said. “Something crazy seems to happy every day at the Tour.”