Astana’s Fuglsang enjoying additional space, support after Aru’s exit

The Danish rider said Aru's departure has opened up room for others on the roster to race for wins.

First it was Vincenzo Nibali, and then Fabio Aru. Two big Italian riders jettisoned Astana, and now it’s up to Jakob Fuglsang to fill the void in the Tour de France.

That’s a challenge he’s ready to embrace with gusto. The 32-year-old Dane said Aru’s Astana exit is his gain.

“I have even more support with Fabio no longer on the team,” Fuglsang said. “It opened up a little more space to all the riders in general.”

Nibali left Astana at the end of 2016 to join upstart Bahrain-Merida. This winter, Aru exited the Kazakh-backed team to sign on with UAE-Emirates. Team manager Alexander Vinokourov was exasperated at Aru’s decision to leave, but Fuglsang saw it coming.

“It was not a surprise to me,” Fuglsang said at Ruta del Sol. “I think he had made up his mind quite early about what he wanted to do. I think he can explain the reasons better than I can.”

Rather than up-end the team, the seemingly tumultuous departures of the franchise’s top two GC riders has seemed to have a positive impact on everyone else inside the organization. Astana has already won four races this season with four different riders, and Fuglsang has quietly posted a podium and a top-four in his first two stage races.

Fulgsang said it’s easy to see why. With Aru and Nibali gone, there are more opportunities for other riders. And everyone is keen to step into the void.

“In this way, hopefully we can get even more results throughout the entire season, when in the past, it was only focused on grand tours,” he said. “And the atmosphere on the team is very good this year, and hopefully that will help us to have a great season.”

In 2018, Fulgsang follows a familiar road toward a return to the Tour de France. His schedule remains largely the same — only swapping out the Dauphiné for the Tour de Suisse in June — with starts at Paris-Nice, the Ardennes classics, and the Tour de Romandie.

Last year, following his dramatic victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné, expectations were sky high for Fulgsang to improve on his career-best seventh in the 2013 Tour. A wrist injury midway through the Tour meant an unexpected and bitter early exit from the Tour.

“What’s important is July,” Fulgsang said emphatically. “I want to do good in the Tour, and I believed I could have done well already last year. I hope I can prove that this year.”

A former mountain biker, Fuglsang has emerged as the biggest star in Danish cycling. Despite scandals involving Bjarne Riis and Michael Rasmussen, the sport remains a top draw. Fuglsang is the leading light among a new generation of Danes that also includes Lars Bak (Lotto-Soudal), Lasse Norman Hansen (Aqua Blue), and Magnus Cort Nielsen and Michael Valgren (Astana).

“They are crazy about cycling in Denmark. I don’t go there so often, but it’s a big hype,” said Fulgsang, who now lives in Monaco. “I learned to live with it over the years. I was the last one in 2013 to do a top 10. It’s been a long time. I don’t pay too much attention to [media hype]. I try to stay focused on my racing. Hopefully, I can make them happy with some results.”

Fuglsang enters his sixth season in Astana colors finally with the chance to be the main team captain at the Tour. He’s seen Nibali and Aru come and go. He’s ready to step up, and the team will be leaning on him for the Tour. Miguel Ángel López will have leadership at the Giro d’Italia.

“For me, it’s all for the Tour, and López for the Giro. Then we’ll see for the Vuelta,” he said. “I am happy with it, and in general, the team is happy with how things are working right now. In the end, so far everything is good for the team, and we hope it will continue.”