BRUSSELS (VN) – Even the leader of the Tour is surprised to be in the yellow jersey after the first stage of the 2019 race. What’s not surprising, is that crashes on the opening day have already taken a toll on the race for GC honors. “Of course it was really nervous,” said the winner in Brussels, Mike Teunissen. “But it’s always really nervous on the first day of the Tour.”
On a route that included one of the most famous climbs from the spring classics, the cobbled Muur van Geraardsbergen – as well as several other sectors of pavé – it was an incident-free race for 174 kilometers of the 194.5km stage. Then came what many believe to be inevitable: a crash. As is so often the case, it happened on a random stretch of road… and it included one of the riders vying for overall honors in 2019, the leader of the Astana team Jakob Fuglsang.
With blood flowing from a cut above his right eye, the winner of the recent Criterium du Dauphiné picked himself up from a footpath on the left-hand side of the road a little over 20km from the finish.
While others tended to their wounds and waited for mechanical repairs Fuglsang almost bounced back up and was riding again before he even realized he was bleeding.
With the support of four Astana team-mates – Pello Bilbao, who waited on the pavement for the brief period it took Fuglsang to remount, as well as Canadian strongman Hugo Houle, and compatriot Magnus Cort – he rejoined the peloton after a 10km chase.
“The doctor told me he has some stitches and some pain,” said team boss Alexandre Vinokourov.
It’s a setback but the Kazakh manager remained calm as he explained how he’d prefer it to happen early in the Tour rather than in the critical stages towards the end.
Instead of returning directly to the team bus, Fuglsang went to the Tour’s medical van to have his eye stitched and allow doctors to asses the rest of the damage.
With blood flowing from the cut, it was a scene reminiscent of what we saw from Lawson Craddock (EF Education First) on day one of last year’s Tour, only that Fuglsang didn’t have to wait nearly as long as the Texan did before having his wounds tended to by doctors. Craddock’s crash happened a long way from the finish of stage one last year… and he’d finish the Tour as the ‘Lanterne Rouge’, a celebrated, memorable last place – one that was effectively set up on day one of his debut Tour.
Early in the Tour de France, there are often casualties, but even ‘Vino’ didn’t seem too upset about the accident, which also included Koen de Kort of Trek-Segafredo and Damiano Caruso, a valuable domestique for Vincenzo Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida team.
“Of course the first week in the Tour de France is always the most dangerous for the guys,” Vinokourov told VeloNews at the finish. Calm, quiet and considered with his commentary, he issued no blame and, although concerned about the state of Fuglsang, Vinokourov believes the incident shouldn’t hinder the chances of the Astana leader too dramatically.
“Today there were big roads and there weren’t so many crashes.
“It was bad luck today but I hope it’s our only bad luck in the Tour.”
The 34-year-old successfully defended his Dauphiné title last month in the French Alps and Astana has every reason to believe that Fuglsang – who seems to be in the best shape ever in July – will continue to challenge for the yellow jersey.
“Tomorrow is a big team time trial,” said Vinokourov, adding: “Of course it’s not an ideal position but what’s important is that he can continue the race. This is the good news.”
The Dane has raced the Tour eight times in the past, finishing as high as seventh on GC (in 2013) but he’s been hindered by injuries in the past. In 2014, he was ranked 10th overall after 12 stages, four and a half minutes behind the eventual race winner that year, his team-mate at the time, Vincenzo Nibali.
The next day he crashed heavily on a descent on the road to Chamrousse, peeling off skin from all over his body and losing over 30 minutes to stage winner, Nibali. Astana had reason to celebrate but Fuglsang’s bid for a second top-10 result came to a grinding, painful halt. He dropped to 25th in the Alps, limped to the Pyrenees bandaged but determined to help Vino-and-co claim another Tour title. Five years ago, Nibali continued to dominate the race but Fuglsang rolled into Paris, ranked 36th.
Back then, Astana was unstoppable. The leader prospered; he finished fourth the next year, faltered in 2016 and the duly departed, bound for Bahrain-Merida.
In 2019, Fuglsang is one of a handful of favorites in an open race for GC honors. His stellar season, his sixth on the Astana roster, includes an overall victory in Ruta del Sol in February, third on GC in Tirreno-Adriatico in March, and first place in the final Monument of spring, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April.
There was a brief pause in racing in May but he returned in style at the Dauphiné: four top-10 results in stages in the French prelude to the Tour, and a fine victory ahead of Tejay van Garderen in the general classification battle.
Fuglsang doesn’t quite share the hype as some of the other GC riders in the lead-up to the Tour but he is certainly one of the favorites. The team suggest the injuries from the crash towards the finish of stage 1 are largely superficial. They’ll manage his workload carefully in the team time trial and minimize his losses… but it’s a blow they could well do without.
“Of course, we have a strong team and Jakob is in good shape,” shrugged Vino. But the boss isn’t too concerned; there is time to heal before the real battle for GC begins on the steep road to La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 6.
“Maybe tomorrow is a difficult stage for him,” concluded Vinokourov. “We need to confirm that Jakob is healthy but I think he’s okay.”
The expected crashes of the first stage happened, but it’s unlikely that the cut to Fuglsang is going to earn him the Lanterne Rouge in 2019.