Two hilly stages across the Vosges could reveal just how far Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) can go in this Tour de France.
Astana’s 34-year-old team leader is still recovering from a nasty crash on the Tour’s opening stage in Brussels, and it’s unknown how Fuglsang’s legs will perform on Thursday’s summit finish to La Planche des Belles Filles.
“I’m still not 100 percent but I am feeling better every day,” Fuglsang said. “My strategy from now on is to take it as easy as possible until the Planche des Belles Filles.”
The Vosges present the first major vertical challenge for the peloton. Wednesday’s hilly finale is a precursor of what looms Thursday. The mountaintop finale at Planche des Belles Filles, back for its fourth appearance in the Tour, should prove pivotal.
In its three previous editions in 2012, 2014 and 2017, whoever held the yellow jersey at the end of the stage went on to win the Tour. This year’s approach should be even more difficult, and the top favorites will be testing their legs against the rivals for the first time. Though the stage comes early in this year’s Tour, the results will be telling for ensuing GC battle.
“On a Tour de France, there is nothing such as an easy day where you can relax completely,” Fuglsang continued. “I’m happy that I finish the way I did [Monday] and that I managed to stay there with the injuries I sustain. It’s good for Julian [Alaphilippe] he won the stage. Planche might be too hard for [Julian], but we’ll see.”
The 34-year-old Dane roared into the 2019 Tour with momentum, having won the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. But Fuglsang is the worse off among the pre-race favorites when it comes to crashes and injuries. Others, such as Geraint Thomas (Ineos), have also been caught up in spills, but no one has suffered as much as Fuglsang.
The Astana leader toppled over his handlebar after colliding with the a bike of a fallen rider as the peloton rumbled into the final 10km on stage 1. Fuglsang struggled to finish the stage, but post-race exams revealed no serious injury. Fuglsang’s Astana crew delivered a solid team time trial performance Sunday and Fuglsang started Wednesday’s fifth stage 25th overall at 1:06 back.
Everyone inside the Astana bus knows the situation could have been much worse. The team lines up as one of the strongest in the peloton, and it’s rallying those forces around Fuglsang.
“It was a heavy setback for Jakob in the crash, but luckily he wasn’t injured too badly,” said Spanish climber and Astana teammate Pello Bilbao. “We are going to support him and hope he can recover for these first important stages.”
Though his Tour best was seventh overall in 2013, many saw Fuglsang as a potential winner in a Tour that sees four-time winner Chris Froome (Ineos) on the sidelines with injury.
Tuesday’s relatively routine stage was a good one for Fuglsang, but his Astana teammate Magnus Cort crashed just behind him, and injured a finger reminding that treachery awaits in every corner in the Tour.
“Luckily, I was able to avoid a crash, but Magnus Cort who was riding behind me did crash,” Fuglsang said Tuesday. “I’m feeling confident about the stages that are coming up.”
A pair of strong performances will reveal that Fuglsang is up for the fight. If he’s hampered, however, Astana could decide to unleash its fleet of climbers to light up the race in search of a stage victory. Four of its eight starters hail from Spain, and they won’t want leave the Tour without at least aiming for a stage win.
“We are here to support Jakob,” said Omar Fraile, a Tour stage-winner last year. “We have seen all season long the level he’s had, so we are going to support him with a very clear plan. Astana will attack as we always do.”
Fuglsang knows he needs a strong performance over the next two days to keep pace with his direct GC rivals to confirm that his options remain intact to himself, to his teammates and his rivals.