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Can Jakob Fuglsang Really Do This?

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With some talk about Dan Martin towards the bottom.

CYCLING-FRA-TDF2019 MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images

In 2013, Jakob Fuglsang had a good Tour de France. He had had a good Dauphiné in the leadup to it and once Jani Brajkovic had dropped out in the first week, he was leading an admittedly weak Astana team. Consistent performances in the mountains and a nose for crosswinds had him in seventh place by Paris which, for a twenty-eight year-old rider, seemed to set him up for a few more years of lower top-ten placings in Grand Tours. That was certainly my impression of where his career would go but he has done something incredibly rare in cycling: he has transformed his career a couple of years after entering his thirties, winning stage races and looking like a real threat for bigger success. A Dauphiné win this year, in addition to victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and not finishing a single race lower than sixth means that he is deservedly in the top three Tour favourites. So — can he win? I’m going to look at the reasons why he won’t to begin with and then try to counter them.

The Case Against Fuglsang

It cannot be denied that he has had a wonderful season but this year wasn’t his first Dauphiné success. The fact that he has not translated one-weeker form into Grand Tour victories can possibly be traced to his tendency to have a jour sans, such as last year to La Rosière where he fell from fourth to twelfth. Bad days are a plague in Grand Tours and he cannot afford to have one this time.

Another issue with Fuglsang which seems to be sort of under the radar is his habit of crashing in the Tour. I’m sure a lot of it is luck but if we can talk about crashing as a major flaw of Porte, we can talk about it in this case. Fuglsang was fifth in the Tour when he crashed on the way to Peyragudes in 2017 and he was tenth when he hit the deck on the way to Chamrousse three years earlier. He also suffered a fall on stage 1 in 2016 so I think this can’t be ignored. It’s strange — he’s a former mountain bike world champion and his bike handling is rarely discussed as an issue but crashing out of contention three times in five years is concerning.

A third issue I’d have with Fuglsang is that I wonder where he has an advantage on Bernal and Thomas, the two riders still rated ahead of him. In the team time-trial, Ineos should have a substantial advantage on Astana and in the individual time-trial Fuglsang is likely to do little better than Bernal. Then there are the mountains and while Fuglsang climbed very well to win the Dauphiné, Wout Poels could stick with him and even beat him to the line.

The Case For Fuglsang

This is a Tour in which there is no favourite. There is something about Geraint Thomas which makes most skeptical that he will be a multiple Tour de France winner. Egan Bernal is effectively a child. Richie Porte is Richie Porte and we’ve all given up hope. The same goes for Nairoman. Bardet can’t time-trial. That means that flaws in whatever rider you speak about don’t have to be overlooked — in small quantities they can simply be lived with and that may play to Fuglsang’s strengths. It’s entirely possible that he won’t have to be the best climber in this Tour de France, simply the most consistent.

That’s where my first qualm with Fuglsang comes into focus to the extent that the crux of any discussion of Fuglsang is his bad days and whether he can get over them because if he can go through this Tour riding consistently he will at least be on the podium. There is, I believe, hope. Just take a look at his season. He has not had a single bad day or bad stage race. Now, I know that the pressure and difficulty of one-weekers pale in comparison to the cauldron that Fuglsang is about to enter, especially as he is a rider who admits that he does not thrive on pressure but it has to count for something that he has dialled in performance after performance all season.

What I think we can accept going into this Tour de France is that every one of the favourites has a flaw or indeed many flaws. Whoever manages their issues better than the others will win. That statement is obviously always true but in Tours like 2013, ‘14 or ‘17, it doesn’t really seem that way. This year, each contender’s struggles will be in full focus and it is whoever has the mental strength to deal with them who will return home with the yellow jersey.

And Now for Something Completely Different

So if you’ve read Andrew and Jens’ magnificent previews of Bernal and Yates’ respective chances, you’ll know the format of this. We talk about a big favourite and then we talk about an outsider. I’m about to stretch it to its limits by doing what I do around here and talking about Dan Martin. Martin has put a target on the Tour de France for years and has so far managed placings in the lower reaches of the top ten on his last three attempts: ninth in 2016, sixth in 2017 and eighth last year. However, in each of the last two Tours Martin crashed badly in the first week and was in survival mode for much of the race thereafter. As I said a few lines up, a history of crashing can’t just be ignored but at the same time, it cannot simply be assumed that Martin will hit the deck.

106th Tour de France 2019 - Team Presentation Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

So then, what can he do if he stays on his bike? Past form would indicate that he might be able to do quite a bit. Traditionally, Martin has been quite good at sticking with the pace as the GC group is whittled down but a hallmark of his riding has been a penchant to attack even when the pace is too high. Occasionally, this works but usually only when he is too far back in the classification for the powers that be in whatever group he inhabits to decide he is worth chasing. A quick look at stage 7 of the Dauphiné shows that he still has trouble riding GC favourites off his wheel, even when staying with them is not a problem.

That, along with his lack of time-trial ability will be the death knell for any hopes he may harbour for the yellow jersey but it may not be so for his podium hopes. The ability to keep up consistently will be as important for Martin as it will be for Fuglsang so if he manages to stave off crashes and bad days, a podium is just as possible for him as it is for many others. A large number of potential podium contenders will have poor form this Tour. A number will crash. Often Martin has fit into one of those two groups but if he keeps himself out of them and rides smartly he’s a real contender for the top five or podium.

But this is the issue. You could write that paragraph about Bardet, Pinot, Uran, Nibali, Kruijswijk, Mas, Van Garderen, even Aru. This whole article illustrates the difficulty in predicting Grand Tours which are so long, challenging and at times insane that the question “Will Rider X succeed?” can sometimes only be answered with “if everything falls into place for him, yes.” This is it for Martin, and to a lesser extent Fuglsang. If you ran this Tour enough times, you would get one where Fuglsang won, and one where Martin finished on the podium. Things will simply have to go their way.

Three Random Predictions

  1. The King of the Mountains jersey will go to a GC rider. There’s been a slight rule tweak towards it and allowing a break to win a Tour stage is wasting precious advertising dollars.
  2. Andrew already said it, but Groenewegen will dominate the sprints and make it to Paris this time.
  3. Gaudu will win a stage.