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It’s not easy to hold form from Strade Bianche to Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Seven long weeks of racing run between the two marquee one-dayers.
Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang was up for the challenge.
His victory at “La Doyenne” on Sunday is a story of perseverance, the result of a perennial Grand Tour hopeful finally rewarded for his endurance and his persistence.
Fuglsang looked sharp from the white roads of Tuscany all the way to the hills of the Ardennes, but that marquee Classics win just kept eluding him for most of that stretch. His lack of a finishing kick was the main culprit.
Off the front with Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe at Strade Bianche, Fuglsang just couldn’t match his rival’s kick in the Siena finale. At the Amstel Gold Race, Fuglsang and Alaphilippe were again leading in the final minutes of the day, but Alaphilippe’s clear advantage in the sprint led Fuglsang to sit on his rival’s wheel, and both were ultimately caught on the finishing straight. Yet again at La Flèche Wallonne, it was Fuglsang and Alaphilippe going clear in the decisive moments of the race, with Alaphilippe outgunning a frustrated Fuglsang once more.
Unsurprisingly, the Frenchman rolled out from the Liège start line as the bookies’ favorite, but this time, the Dane prevailed. Having been on top form practically all season, Alaphilippe finally faded. Fuglsang, on the other hand, looked as fresh as ever, soloing away from the field on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons.
He ultimately won Liège with a hefty margin over runner-up Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe), with a sketchy corner posing the only real challenge to his triumph in the end.
Considering his dominance at Liège, you might assume Fuglsang has a long track record of success in the Ardennes. In fact, until this year he hadn’t registered a podium in any of the three hilly races. This year he podiumed in all three and won the biggest one. Perhaps Fuglsang was just slow to realize his own potential in the Classics. Again, his is a story of persistence and endurance – not only this year, but across his career.
Fuglsang, 34, has spent the past decade as a one-week contender and Grand Tour hopeful, racing as Astana’s Tour de France leader for many of those years. As a strong climber with a big engine, he has the sort of skillset directors look for in a three-week racer, but across that entire stretch he has scored exactly one Grand Tour top 10, at the 2013 Tour de France.
Nonetheless, he kept at it. Grand Tour success has not come his way, but he has seen gradual improvements in other areas. He finally scored his first ever WorldTour win with a brilliant Critérium du Dauphiné in 2017. In the past few seasons he’s also shown signs of one-day potential. He notched a top 10 here and there and grabbed a silver medal in the road race at the Rio Olympics.
This season, he seemed to shift his focus more squarely to the one-day realm, and it paid off. Fuglsang worked into excellent form for the spring and then stayed patient through one narrow defeat after another until, finally, his biggest rival flagged. Having finished on the podium in all three of the WorldTour one-dayers he had started before Sunday, Fuglsang persevered through to the hilly Liège and finally found himself atop a Monumental podium.
The endurance and the persistence may not have scored Fuglsang the Grand Tour win he has long sought over his career, but they were undoubtedly the keys to his first career Monument win.
A route change pays off for Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Fuglsang’s feel-good win might not have been possible without a change to the route of spring’s final Monument.
Despite the name, Liège-Bastogne-Liège had been finishing in the suburb of Ans for nearly 30 years. The Ans finale was not exceptionally challenging, but it did feature an uphill run to the line. Over the past few seasons, Liège faced criticism for stale racing, as the top contenders often opted to hold their fire for an expected uphill sprint rather than going long and trying to hold out over the final short climb.
There were certainly exceptions, including at last year’s race when Quick-Step’s Bob Jungels went long, but enough editions came down to a reduced sprint that the criticism rang true.
Organizers shook things up for the 2019 edition, moving the finish back to Liège and flattening out the final kilometres.
As much as the race remains a climbers’ affair, the climbers would have to attack from more than 10 kilometres out with no real gradients beyond the Roche-aux-Faucons. The move was a gamble. Sure, the course change could inspire the kind of aggressive racing that gets fans so excited about other spring races like the Tour of Flanders – but if the big names held their fire on the late climbs, a flat finish would just mean an even more traditional sprint.
Fortunately, the gamble paid off thanks to Fuglsang, who decided that he had come up short in one too many sprint finishes this spring and soloed clear in the finale to give the new finish its first winner.