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by Fran Reyes
February 25, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos
The 18th stage of the 2016 Vuelta a España finished on the seaside, in Gandia, with a winner nobody identified correctly at first glance. An Orica rider winning a sprint? It must be Jens Keukeleire, who had netted a stage victory in Bilbao a week earlier by being the fastest out of a 45-rider bunch.
But it wasn’t the Belgian rider to triumph in Gandia, but rather a teammate who took his maiden World Tour victory, opening a foreseeable account of victories.
In the midst of the turmoil that is inherent to every finish line where exhausted bike riders, exhilarated team staff, and excited fans merge in chaos, Orica director Julian Dean was at the eye of the storm. Dean is almost a local in Gandia, having lived there for years as a professional cyclist. Cheerful neighbours came to shake his hand and congratulate him on his rider’s victory as he tried to explain the meaning of Cort’s exploit.
“He is an exceptionally gifted rider, and very fast,” Dean said. “But don’t be confused. He’s not a sprinter. He won here because the level is not super high. The races where he is really going to excel are the northern classics.” Three days later, in Madrid, Cort went on to win another sprint.
He’s done so a few times already in 2017, at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the Clásica de Almería, where he sat down with CyclingTips for an interview.
Now, on the eve of Classics openers Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, we introduce the rider who just might make 2017 his breakthrough year on the cobblestones.
Born in 1993 in Bornholm, Denmark, the story of Magnus Cort is one of a rider who is carefully developing his potential and hasn’t gotten carried away by early success. Having grown up in a sporting family, he started out as runner back in his school years, only to later be drawn to mountain biking.
During his spell in the junior ranks, the Danish rider switched his focus to road cycling. “I just liked the racing better,” he explained. “In mountain biking, I had to do one hour full gas, and that was it. On the road there is more room for tactics, for sheltering, and one has to manage his energy to go all out in a certain moment depending on his team’s needs.”
Cort’s shift to the road, and rise across the ranks, was stunning, akin to the impression made by Edvald Boasson Hagen back in his early career. Besides collecting placings and victories in the best European U23 races, he twice upset a WorldTour-studded peloton at the 2013 Tour of Denmark, despite being just 19 years old. Those wins caught the eye of several top teams, which each offered him a ticket to ride in the world’s best races — a ticket he refused.
“First and foremost, I was racing for Cult Energy, which was a great team to be at, and for the Danish national squad, which was also very supportive,” Cort said. “I spoke with my coach Morten Bennekou [currently trainer at Sunweb-Giant] and, taking into account I had another two years of U23 before me, we decided it was better to wait another season before turning pro, so the step up was a bit smaller and my chance of succeeding a bit bigger.”
Cort’s show of patience contrasts remarkably with an environment in which most riders try to sign a pro contract as soon as possible. “I took the safer path, and at the same time probably made the difficult choice,” he said.
Magnus Cort, Stage 1 winner and race leader, 2013 Tour of Denmark. Photo: LR/Cor Vos.
In early 2014, Cort signed his contract with Orica-GreenEdge. The main factor behind his decision was the fact that the team was English-speaking. He has found himself at ease in the Australian outfit, as shown when he speaks of the long-term approach that the team applies to every project. “It has built its own Grand Tour team, with its own leaders, instead of simply buying riders from other teams,” he said. “Isn’t it cool?”
Cort has fully embraced Orica-Scott’s culture, and that includes also working for his teammates at any chance, as he did in the Vuelta a España, where he was instrumental in the mountain stages, devoting his energies to the likes of Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates.
“It felt great because it gave me a daily goal,” he explained. “A three-week race can be very hard if your only goal is to make it through a number of stages suffering as little as possible, to later aim at winning one or two. Those days where you are intended to save your legs, they are still going to hurt and will feel like pointless efforts. Meanwhile, working for a leader, you are probably spending more energy, but mentally it is nicer. Plus, it creates a better atmosphere within the team.”
“I’m very happy where I am,” he asserted, emphatically. “This team has created a close-bonded group where everyone is happy to help each other. I for one get enough chances to fight for victories, have the support I deserve from the team, and gladly act in a support role whenever I am asked to. The Yates brothers themselves, they rode their heart out to set up a sprint for me in Comunitat Valenciana. That’s unusual with Grand Tour contenders, and priceless.”
When Cort won his second stage at last year’s Vuelta, his first words in the press conference were, “I still can’t believe it.”
Can he believe it now? “Well, I’d say yes,” he answers with a bright smile. “You know, maybe I still… It’s difficult to realise sometimes. Four years before I was watching those stages on TV and looked at the winner thinking, ‘What a superstar!’ And now I am winning those stages, so somehow now I am that superstar!”
Actually, Cort is a rising star, an emerging force on the sport’s biggest stage. “Since my Vuelta victories, I am getting more attention from the media and also from the bunch. Now they know who I am,” he said, while acknowledging that he is not on the same level as Cavendish, Kittel, et al. “I am a level below them, albeit the gap is getting smaller. Also, the best years of a cyclist come at the age of 27 to 29, so I might get to be up there. I don’t know yet how far I can arrive as a pure bunch sprinter. But at the moment I am also working with a Northern Classics approach.”
That’s the key factor to understand Cort’s career. As Dean pointed out, Orica-Scott believes he is not only a potential world-class sprinter, but also a future Classics contender. This fits perfectly the team’s needs, given it already has a bullet for mass sprints in Caleb Ewan, whereas it will soon need a leader on the cobblestones, as 2016 Roubaix winner Matthew Hayman will soon be 39 years old.
To nurture his aspirations, Cort has raced the full cobblestone campaign for the last two years, though without a top 10 at a major race. “I was a bit better in 2016 than I was in 2015, and hope to be competitive in 2017. In the second part of the last season I felt I had stepped up a level and I’d like to confirm it not only in the sprints, but also by being present in the final part of the Classics.”
Despite having made the podium of the U23 Tour of Flanders, Cort says his favourite classic is Paris-Roubaix. “It is a brutal race — the biggest one, the craziest one, the hardest one. Not the race I would do every day, but once a year it is okay,” he smiled.
After beginning his season in style with the two victories in Spain, Cort’s classics campaign will begin this weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Later on he will race Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo, looking to fill the void left at Orica-Scott by Michael Matthews’ departure.
And then, the cobbled Monuments will come.