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Can a veteran rider well into his thirties who has never stood on a Grand Tour podium win the Tour de France?
It happened last year with Geraint Thomas — another rider who had not historically been the strongest climber nor time trialist, but was always capable at both — and it could well happen this year with Jakob Fuglsang.
Thomas won last year on his ninth Tour start, at the age of 32, six weeks after winning the Critérium du Dauphiné. Fuglsang will be taking his ninth Tour start next month, at the age of 34, just after winning the Dauphiné. (As a side note, both riders started their cycling careers in disciplines other than road racing.)
The Astana rider is enjoying the best season of his 11-year pro career, having also won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Vuelta a Andalucia, with podium finishes at Tirreno-Adriatico, Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold Race, and Flèche Wallonne. He also finished fourth overall at Itzulia Basque Country, won by his teammate Ion Izagirre.
Fuglsang is currently sitting third among the oddsmakers’ list of pre-race favorites, behind the Ineos duo of Egan Bernal and Thomas, and ahead of Grand Tour champions like Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali, and Alejandro Valverde. He’s also positioned third in the UCI World Rankings, behind Julian Alaphilippe and Primoz Roglic.
Like Thomas last year, Fuglsang has rarely had a clean shot at racing for the overall as a team leader In the past, he has ridden in support role, or been injured in a crash, or both. His best Grand Tour finish was seventh at the 2013 Tour; it was his only top-10 finish in 12 Grand Tour attempts.
“Top five at least,” Fuglsang said after winning the Dauphiné, when asked about his ambitions for the 2019 Tour de France. “But we’ll target the podium, and the win.”
A HISTORY OF PROMISE
A former U23 mountain-bike world champion — he won the rainbow jersey in 2007 ahead of future stars Nino Schurter and Jaroslav Kulhavy — Fuglsang raised eyebrows within the pro peloton when he won the overall at the 2008 Tour of Denmark while riding for the Continental team Designa Kokken. The following year he turned pro with Saxo Bank, run by compatriot Bjarne Riis.
At his Tour debut in 2010, Fuglsang rode in support of Andy Schleck, who was later deemed the winner due to Alberto Contador’s doping suspension. A year later, Fuglsang again rode in support of Schleck at Leopard-Trek; Schleck finished second to Cadel Evans.
Fuglsang’s blossoming career was put on hold in 2012 following Leopard-Trek’s merger with RadioShack-Nissan, after he was excluded from WorldTour events due to his outspoken criticism of team manager Johan Bruyneel. Fuglsang switched over to Astana in 2013, where he has remained since.
In 2014, Fuglsang rode the Tour in support of teammate Vincenzo Nibali, who took the overall victory; the Dane proved vital across the cobblestones on Stage 5, finishing second on the stage after guiding the maillot jaune across the pavé. A crash on Stage 13 — he hit a water bottle that bounced out of another rider’s bottle cage — left him bloodied and battered, and limited what he could do to support Nibali in the mountains.
For all of his success, Fuglsang has never won a stage at a Grand Tour. Disaster struck what was perhaps his best opportunity, at the 2015 Tour, when a race moto caused him to crash while riding in the breakaway on the Col du Glandon. The moto driver was ejected from the race.
Fuglsang again rode in support of Nibali at the 2016 Giro d’Italia, where the Italian mounted an improbable third-week comeback to be crowned the overall champion; it marked Fuglsang’s third time in seven seasons riding in support of a Grand Tour winner.
After a disappointing 2016 Tour riding in support of Fabio Aru, Fuglsang took a silver medal at the Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro, which came about after Nibali and Sergio Henao crashed out of the lead on the final descent.
Fuglsang won the Dauphiné in 2017, winning two of the final three stages. He went to the Tour riding in support of Aru, but abandoned on Stage 13 due to fractures to his left elbow and wrist sustained in a crash two days earlier. It was the only time the Dane has abandoned a Grand Tour.
That year, Fuglsang overcame Richie Porte to take the GC lead at the Dauphiné on the final stage; this year, he took the lead at the on the penultimate stage, on a summit finish contested in cold and wet conditions.
Like at Liége, where he soloed for the final 13km, Fuglsang shone brightest at the Dauphiné when weather conditions were terrible. He likely won’t have that advantage in July, but he knows this is perhaps his last, best shot at a Tour victory. And because the first half of his season has been an unmitigated success, he’ll have the luxury of racing for victory without the weight of expectations.
“I look forward to the Tour de France,” Fuglsang said. “I think I’m on the right path and until now it’s already been a great season for me and Astana. This year everything seems to come really easy and perfect. There is no stress, and the atmosphere is fantastic. We lift each other, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves for our teammates, and with that, we have been able to win many races with many different riders.”
RUNNING THE SCENARIOS
Even with Froome out of the picture, it’s hard to see past Team Ineos, the team that has won the Tour six times in seven years with three different riders. In Bernal and Thomas they have the two biggest pre-race favorites, supported by riders such as Wout Poels, Michal Kwiatkowsi, Kenny Elissonde, Jonathan Castroviejo, and Dylan van Baarle.
Fuglsang heads into the Tour with what appears to be the best form of his career, with a full team at his disposal, and with a more open race than we’ve seen since 2014, when Froome and Contador crashed out early. He’ll be backed by a strong Astana squad that includes Gorka Izagirre, Magnus Cort, Pello Bilbao, Luis León Sanchez, Omar Fraile, and Alexey Lutsenko.
It’s a very capable squad that should hold its own in the Stage 2 team time trial, though Astana won’t want to spend any time defending the maillot jaune in the first week.
Historically, Fuglsang is not better against the clock than Thomas or Bernal. In the mountains he’s about on par with Thomas, but neither rider can match the young Colombian. If Fuglsang has any shot at wearing yellow in Paris, he will need to be opportunistic; he’s not going to win in a straight battle against each other rider.
Should Bernal or Thomas be in the maillot jaune in the final week, given that there is no final time trial it’s possible one or the other could sacrifice their GC position in order to secure the overall victory. If Fuglsang is still in the running, he could capitalize on that and perhaps slot into second or third overall.
In order to win, Fuglsang will need for Bernal to have at least one bad day, and he’ll need Thomas to lack the form he had in 2018. There are, of course, other teams with strong overall contenders — namely Movistar with Quintana, Valverde, and Mikel Landa — but Ineos will once again dictate the GC battle.
Quintana and Landa are both rumored to be leaving Movistar in 2020, while Fuglsang is rumored to be in discussions with the Spanish team, which could all make for some interesting dynamics on the road.
Perhaps the tension between Ineos and Movistar could create an opening for Fuglsang. The best-case scenario for him would be to take the race lead some time in the final week, on one of the final three mountain stages, and then be required to defend for only a day or two. This is much easier said than done, of course.
That said, there are truly only a handful of riders who can contend for the podium, and Fuglsang is one of them. If he can avoid crashes and bad luck, he is well positioned to have his best-ever Tour performance in July.
To reach the podium, or better, he’ll need to have everything come together — fitness, tactics, team strength, and luck — at just the right time. It’s happened before. Just ask Geraint Thomas.