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Jakob Fulgsang is one of those young riders who catch lots of hype early in their careers and reach a certain tipping point. Some live up to the expectations while others seem to crack under the pressure.
The 26-year-old Dane is reaching one of those make-or-break points in this Vuelta a España and looks to be poised for even bigger things. Quietly second overall, at just 12 seconds down on Chris Froome (Sky), the future could suddenly be now for the ex-mountain biker.
“Oh, yes, he has the engine to win a grand tour,” Leopard-Trek sport director Lars Michaelsen told VeloNews. “There’s no doubt he has the skills needed to do well in grand tours. He’s still developing and he doesn’t come to this Vuelta with too much pressure.”
Fuglsang says he’s up for the fight.
His excellent time trial Monday – sixth at 1:37 behind stage-winner Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) – put him in an ideal position going into the second half of the 2011 Vuelta.
Sky will carry the pressure, with Froome in the leader’s jersey and Bradley Wiggins in third at 20 seconds back, meaning that Fuglsang can float where he’s typically been: just off the radar screen.
“I’m super happy to be in second place overall,” said Fuglsang after Monday’s stage. “Honestly, when I first saw it I was a little bit angry. I was like, ‘I want that red jersey back!’ When I took a step back and thought about the race as a whole, I realize this is the better way. It saves the team and allows me to save a bit more energy.”
Fuglsang got his 15 minutes of fame at the front end of the Vuelta, when he took red after Leopard-Trek roared to victory in the opening team time trial in Benidorm. Daniele Bennati slotted into the leader’s jersey the next day and Fuglsang slipped back into the background.
The 6-foot, 154-pound Fuglsang has quietly been impressing since he switched to the road scene after a highly successful mountain bike career. After falling short of an Olympic medal on dirt in Beijing in 2008, Fuglsang switched his focus to the road.
He quickly racked up impressive results, winning the Tour of Denmark just days after the Olympics. He defended his title on home roads in 2009 and 2010 and rode to third overall at the 2010 Tour de Suisse, further cementing his progression as a rider with GT potential.
Fuglsang was equally strong in his grand tour debut in the 2009 Vuelta, notching one second and two third places in stages in the second half of the race.
“I see my future as a grand tour rider,” Fuglsang told VeloNews. “Right now I am helping the Schleck brothers and I am learning a lot from them. I know I need to keep working and perhaps even lose a little more weight. My strength is that I am good in a lot of things.”
His first two Tours de France, he rode in service of the Schlecks, riding to 50th in each 2010 and 2011, sacrificing any ambitions of chasing his own GC result to help push the Schlecks onto the podium in July.
If Fuglsang wants to reach the podium on September 11 in Madrid, he will have to step up in the grueling climbs that loom in this Vuelta. Up the windy summit push at La Covatilla in stage 9, he couldn’t match the surges by Wiggins and crossed the line 23rd at 50 seconds back.
Those lost seconds cost him a chance to recapture the red jersey in Monday’s time trial.
The big test for Fuglsang’s chances will be next weekend’s monster climbs at Farrapona and the Anglirú.
“He’s not an explosive climber like Contador, but he’s very good and he has a good sprint at the end of a stage, which could be important for time bonuses,” Michaelsen said. “What will help him in those stages, where the roads are narrow and rough, is his mountain biking background. He’s a good bike handler and doesn’t waste energy trying to stay in position.”
Michaelsen said the team doesn’t want to put too much pressure on Fuglsang. Leopard-Trek has a second GC option in Maxime Monfort, who also surprised in Monday’s TT to settle into sixth overall at 59 seconds back.
That will give Fuglsang some extra breathing room as enters unknown territory of riding into the final half of a grand tour with the weight on the race on his shoulders, and not the Schlecks’.
“This Vuelta is harder and just getting harder,” Michaelsen said. “We are in a good position, but we have to take it day to day. The key is to not have a bad day. The mountains in the final half are unforgiving. If we can get up those, we will be in good position.”
For Fuglsang, the future is now. He’s in the driver’s seat to take aim for a strong GC performance to confirm his potential. What he takes out of Spain will serve him well in the future, but he’s not short of ambition. If he’s got the legs, he wants to take it all right now.