What to make of Jakob Fuglsang’s victory in the Critérium du Dauphiné? What, indeed, to make of the astonishing season Astana are having, in general? They’ve accrued 28 victories this year already. Thirteen of those have come at WorldTour level, while four have been either a Grand Tour stage or Monument.
That equals the most the Kazakh-backed team have ever managed for a full season since they were formed in 2006. In 2008, they won five Vuelta stages. (Granted the WorldTour was a bit smaller back then.) We’re not the only ones wondering how they’ve done it, though the more pressing question is whether they can keep it up until the end of July.
Because being – or having – the best rider at the Tour, or one of them, can only take you so far. That the team formerly known as Sky have won the race with three different riders is no coincidence. Plenty of contenders, including a couple we might name from last year, could make a strong case that they would have finished higher up the order if only their squad had been stronger, or more disciplined.
Assuming his team’s provisional line-up ends up being the one they go with, Jakob Fuglsang will not be able to say that.
Astana will arrive in Brussels with Fuglsang himself one of the team’s only two riders who have never won a stage of a three week race (and he did win Liège-Bastogne-Liège a few months ago). If his team-mates can keep a lid on their individual ambitions – and manage not to mess things up tactically – it’s easy to imagine him as the only leader with a full phalanx of protection left to escort him through the meaty end of the Tour’s toughest stages.
To present the other side, having the strongest team is all well and good, but it doesn’t count for much if that team doesn’t also contain the strongest rider. That’s a harder question to answer about Fuglsang. He was the standout rider of the spring (bar Mathieu van der Poel); not once off the podium and on the top step at the last Ardennes classic that mattered.
Then there’s the Dauphiné’s record of predicting winners which has to mark him out as a favourite, if not the. Of the others, none have shown us anything to justify that status. Even if you don’t think Ineos’ riders are cursed, neither Bernal nor Thomas have had the perfect preparation. After that, who do we have? Quintana? Yates? Porte? Pinot? Really?
Fuglsang is also 34. Not that we should rule someone out by age alone, but it would be quite the Indian summer for a rider who has only finished in the top ten of a Grand Tour on one previous occasion. He might have managed better two years ago had he not been forced to abandon due to injuries suffered in a crash. But then he might not.
Of the Dauphiné, this year’s victory arguably tells us less than usual, the course bearing little resemblance to the Alpine portion of the Tour de France. Lastly there’s the matter of form. It would be an extraordinary feat to have stayed at that level, or somewhere close to it, from February through to the end of July.
None of which is to say, with any certainty, that he won’t win the Tour de France. Someone has to.