Stage four is another fiercely hot day at the Tour of Oman, but after a slow start, the peloton approaches Green Mountain at speed and with obvious intent.
Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali attacks on the mountain’s ferocious, 13.5 per cent gradients, but on this occasion, the Italian champion is repaying a debt of gratitude, rather than pursuing any personal ambition. Nibali’s assaults are an attempt to weaken the peloton so that his team-mate Jakob Fuglsang can finish the job.
It is a role reversal that places the Dane in the position of leader and carries us to the heart of the Fuglsang conundrum: too talented to find fulfillment as a domestique, even one essential to his leader’s success, yet riding in a team where Grand Tour leadership is perhaps more closely fought than anywhere. Young Fabio Aru has usurped any claim Fuglsang might have had to captaining Astana’s ship at the Giro, and while he retains hopes of heading the team’s assault on La Vuelta, a half-decent season from Luis Leon Sanchez might threaten this ambition too.
Fuglsang turns thirty this year and admits that his performances last season weren’t sufficient to earn leadership. Therein lies his dilemma: while riding as domestique, however super, he is denied the opportunity to show his full ability. And by making himself indispensable to Nibali’s cause, Astana has little incentive to change a winning formula.
Two solutions suggest themselves: to accept the role of super domestique, or to leave the team. Fuglsang’s contract is up for renewal at the end of the season and while he argues that it’s possible to mount a challenge for the GC with a smaller team, highlighting Ag2r’s success at last year’s Tour, he is minded to prove himself worthy of leadership at Astana, a team where he says he his happy and has achieved some good results.
“I think to be captain is still the ultimate. I still want to gain results for myself. For me, to be a domestique is perhaps the easy solution: you are not the one who has pressure to deliver results. Of course, you need to have the level, but a domestique is something I know that I can do, because I did it for Andy and Frank Schleck, and I did it for Vincenzo.
“For me, that’s not the question. The question is the bigger challenge of being captain. I think I should still look for the bigger challenge in my career. I say, ok, I’m 30, but Evans won the Tour when he was 36, so I still have some years to go.”
This last statement comes with a small smile, but Fuglsang is aware of the brevity of the athlete’s career. He need look no further than his former captain Andy Schleck for a reminder of how a seemingly innocuous injury can bring matters to a premature end.
While Nibali’s victory was unquestionably the story of last year’s Tour, Fuglsang’s performances provided an intriguing sub-text. If shepherding the Italian across the cobbles of Arenberg offered the clearest example of his value to the eventual winner, it is his performances on stages two and thirteen that most intrigue Rouleur.
Fuglsang’s attack at the summit of Jenkin Road on the second stage was exhilarating, and resulted from a pre-race plan that was almost scuppered by logistical blunder. Astana had recced the parcours into Sheffield days earlier, but, he admits, had ridden the wrong course.
“The way we did it, it was just big roads all the way to the finish, more or less,” Fuglsang remembers. “I was at the back taking a piss, and then coming back, they took a turn to the right, off into the small streets!” The same small streets led to Jenkin Road and an early clash between those with pretensions to overall victory. For Astana, however, Nibali’s triumph was an unexpected bonus.
“Our plan was to get a good position on the stage, to have the car first in the convoy for the cobblestone stage,” Fuglsang recalls. “I was supposed to attack over the top of the last climb, the last small kicker. I went on the left side, but at the same time Froome went on the right, and then I tried once on the descent and he went after me, and then Sagan came, and I went after Sagan.
“I attacked once on the flat and Van Avermaet came with me, and he either didn’t want to pull or he had Tejay [van Garderen] behind. They probably didn’t know if they should look for me or Vincenzo or both of us. When I got caught, Vincenzo went. I think Froome expected Contador to close it, or Contador expected Froome to close it, and they were just looking at each other.”
He recalls the action calmly, but the packed sequence of events he describes is more revealing of an exhilarating finish that even had the press room on its feet. It illustrates Fulgsang’s importance to Nibali’s cause as clearly as anything that happened on the cobbles.
Most impressive, however, was the Dane’s refusal to quit after crashing at sickening speed while descending on the mountainous thirteenth stage from Saint-Étienne. Images of Fuglsang cleaning his wounds with a bidon while he pedalled alone to Chamrousse will live long in the memory. He finished more than 30 minutes down that day, but finished when almost anyone else would have climbed off. Reflecting on his actions more than seven months later, he concedes that stopping and gaining time to heal would have reduced his long-term recovery: he has struggled through the winter with tightness in the muscles and ligaments of his left side.
In the heat of the moment, however, his only thought was to continue and not to waste the months of training. Such is the professional cyclist's mentality. To his still greater credit, Fuglsang’s intellect continued to function in the immediate aftermath of the crash, when rational thought might have been washed away on a tide of adrenalin.
“The problem was that the wounds were burning like hell and I had blisters on my fingers from sliding on the tarmac. I thought if I can keep the wounds wet, maybe I can get the clothes off, so in the moment when I crashed, I cleaned them, because I thought, it’s better to clean them now the pain is not 100 per cent, than to start cleaning once you’re in the bus.”
Astana, Nibali, and the year to come
Fuglsang has rolled out in Oman with Nibali, Dario Cataldo, and Lieuwe Westra: perhaps a Sky-inspired strategy of keeping a Tour team together throughout the season. Green Mountain, the Tour of Oman’s gift to the climbing elite, one that has already become a traditional indicator of how a Grand Tour rider has wintered, has proved again that Fuglsang is capable of leadership. It was Nibali, as we have discussed, who attempted to draw the sting from the peloton with an early attack on its impossible gradients.
The pair look set to spend another season in close company. On the final stage of the 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné in particular, the gulf between Nibali’s form and Fuglsang’s was evident. Observers stationed just past the finish line, as this writer was that day, would have noted Fuglsang waiting nearly half-a-minute for his team leader to arrive, craning his neck for sight of Nibali and continuing with his day only after the Italian champion was safely across the finish line.
Within the sphere of professional sport, the display was bordering on affecting. For Fuglsang, however, the relationship, while cordial, is entirely professional; friendship does not enter into it. “We are just work colleagues. That’s how it is. From my side, I’m a really loyal rider and if the team asks me to do something, I will try to do it 100 per cent.”
Cycling is not his entire life, Fuglsang says. Winter training camps and fly-away races are passed in the company of books and the internet, but his chief interest away from the sport for the moment is a house he is building in Luxembourg. There are days, typically in winter, when being compelled to ride a bike can make it feel like a job, he concedes, but for the most part Fuglsang is proud to be a professional cyclist, despite the sport’s perennial doping issues.
He is looking forward to the cobbled Classics this season, which he will watch as a fan, rather than with the professional interest he is required to take in the Grand Tours. One day, he would like to ride them. Despite his very passable imitation of a Classics rider on the Tour’s cobbled stage last year, the words Jakob Fuglsang and cobbled Classics do not belong in the same sentence, do they? “Probably not,” he smiles. “Maybe they should.”
The inclusion of a cobbled stage in this year’s Tour may have prompted Froome’s short-lived vacillation over whether to participate. For Nibali and Astana, however, strengthened further in this area by the closed-season acquisition of stage winner Lars Boom, it is a considerable plus, is it not?
“For sure, it’s not a minus. Of course, anything could happen on the cobbles. You have to prepare well, you have to pay attention, and you have to be there. Then you can have a puncture, then you can be unlucky. I think in general, we have a strong team, and now Lars Boom is also there: maybe we can have a top three.”
If his ride across the stones was a surprise to many, it was not to Fuglsang, possessed of the bike handling skills of a former world mountain bike champion and already a veteran of a cobbled stage in the Tour, when in 2010 he finished again in Arenberg Porte du Hainault, in a group containing Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador after his then-team leader Frank Schleck had crashed out.
All three of the aforementioned have served doping bans, but Fuglsang is a refreshing example of a GC rider around whom there are no suspicions. He has been an outspoken critic of doping in the past, calling for his former directeur Johan Bruyneel to be banned from the sport, but now finds himself on a team headed by Alexander Vinokourov, which registered three EPO positives last year.
“Show me a team where there have been no problems,” he shrugs, wearily. “I try to block it out and say, Ok, I know what I stand for. I want to ride clean and I try to be 100 per cent professional and do my job as well as I can, and what somebody else did in the past is not my business. I want to be on the level that I am and try to enjoy it, and hopefully enjoy some nice results the day I retire, not having to be scared that someone will come and take them away.”
With two stages of the Tour of Oman remaining, Fuglsang remains in contention in seventh place, 1.10 down on new race leader Rafael Valls (Lampre-Merida), an unexpected winner atop Green Mountain. Today’s finishing circuit outside the Ministry of Housing looks tailor made for Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan, but the 8.8 per cent, 3.2km climb of Bousher Al Amerat, is the key feature of a finishing circuit that could aid Fuglsang’s cause.
The final descent, in particular, has potential to inspire scenes reminiscent of those on Jenkin Road, where Fuglsang showed that when the denouement comes with "full on racing", as he describes the finish in Sheffield, he can be as explosive and tatically astute as Nibali. He will hope to be so again today, and to take a significant step to resolving the conundrum faced by Astana in accommodating a support rider with the ability to lead.