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Fuglsang showed up to Jerusalem after an intense few weeks of not really knowing where he’d be racing in 2022, but once the late-hour deal was done to join the WorldTour team, he seemed to fit in quickly with his new teammates.
“In the end, I had the opportunity to come here,” Fuglsang told VeloNews. “It’s a team where I know I can fit in nicely. I really like the atmosphere on the team. Just the first few days it’s confirmed to me it’s the right team to come to.”
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His late arrival to the Israeli-backed team — Fuglsang and Houle were confirmed in October on three-year deals — revealed an interesting back-story that includes threads between Israel, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Canada.
Back-room drama at Astana opened door for move to ISN
After stints at Saxo Bank and Leopard-Trek/RadioShack, Fuglsang joined Astana in 2013, and soon became a team fixture. The all-rounder popped for top-10s in all three grand tours and won a slew of races, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Il Lombardia, a silver medal in the 2016 Olympic Games and the Critérium du Dauphiné GC on two occasions.
Behind the scenes, by 2019, the Astana team budget was under pressure. Long-backed by high-level Kazakh officials, in large part to support now-retired Alexander Vinokourov as well as promote the team on the world stage, changes in the government saw the team’s budget greatly reduced going into 2020.
A world pandemic didn’t help, but longtime partner Premier Tech, backed by Canadian businessman Jean Bélanger, bought into ownership of the team and became title co-sponsor going into 2021.
Fuglsang and the other riders were caught in the middle of a power struggle as Bélanger and Vinokourov fought for control of the team, with Vinokourov surprisingly exiting the team just before the start of the 2021 Tour de France.
Just when it appeared that Premier Tech was gaining more control, officials in Kazakhstan pushed back and insisted on having Vinokourov return to the fold.
According to an interview with a Canadian newspaper this fall, Bélanger said he opted to leave the team to look for new partners. And just like that, Premier Tech was on the market for a new WorldTour partner.
Fuglsang, meanwhile, worked out a side deal with Bélanger, who promised Fuglsang and Houle that he would assure them a place on a WorldTour team in 2022.
In fact, Fuglsang revealed that he was in talks with Israel Start-Up Nation before the situation at Astana-Premier Tech blew up this summer.
“I talked to these guys [ISN] already in August, and they wanted me to come here,” Fuglsang said. “It was quite tempting, but I had already given my word to [Bélanger] to go wherever he would go. For the sake of the friendship we have, but also because I like the ideas and visions and what he had done for us at Astana. So then, I had to say no to these guys, and said I will wait for Jean to make his decisions and to see what the outcome would be.”
Bélanger and his promise of millions of dollars of sponsorship backing quickly made him very popular within the WorldTour. He confirmed that he was in contact with four teams, including Qhubeka-NextHash and Team BikeExchange.
Israel Start-Up Nation also picked up Giacomo Nizzolo from Qhubeka-NextHash in the off-season uncertainty surrounding the African team.
By September, it appeared a deal with Premier Tech and the Australia-backed BikeExchange was nearly done when longtime owner Gerry Ryan decided not to move ahead with the merger, citing questions of ownership within the team. Ryan wanted to retain total ownership, and Bélanger wanted to buy-in.
“The deal with BikeExchange, it looked like it was a done deal, and it fell on the floor,” Fuglsang said.
Fuglsang patiently waited as negotiations played out
Up next came a link to Israel Start-Up Nation. Though it’s known for its Israeli identity, the team also has deep Canadian roots via team owner Sylvan Adams, whose family owns a real estate development business.
Bélanger and Israel Start-Up Nation owner Adams have known each other for years in the Canadian business and cycling community, and Adams got wind of Bélanger’s interest in new partners. Adams invited him to join the team at October’s Paris-Roubaix in order to check things out.
Sources told VeloNews that negotiations between Bélanger and Adams are ongoing, and that no official merger or deal is finalized going into 2022.
Fuglsang, meanwhile, was confident that Bélanger would not leave him hanging, and space was opened up on the Israel Start-Up Nation roster for the Dane and Houle, with sources telling VeloNews that Bélanger will cover their salaries.
“I trusted Jean,” Fuglsang said. “Maybe it was not the best thing to do, because history tells you in cycling that if you trust people in this way and you put your career on the line, it can end badly. But I trusted him that if things didn’t turn out as the way he wanted, I trusted there would be a solution and it wouldn’t be a bad one.”
So in the course of a few intense weeks, Fuglsang was waiting patiently on the sidelines, thinking he might be racing for an Australian team only to end up alongside Chris Froome, four Israelis and five Canadians who are part of the core at Israel Start-Up Nation.
Fuglsang laughed at the unlikely outcome, but said he immediately felt “at home” on the team. He already knew many of the riders and staffers, and naturally eased in with his new teammates during last week’s camp.
“I think I will fit in nicely,” Fuglsang said. “Just being part of the group here, it’s like a family. Everyone gets along. There is not a big group that kind of sticks to themselves.”
Fuglsang said the setup at ISN was already a refreshing change from what he experienced at Astana, where he said the team was divided among national and linguistic lines.
“At Astana, I cannot say I was not happy there, but there was still a big group of Kazakhs that were difficult to communicate with,” he said. “And there was a big group of Spanish riders. I didn’t have a problem with them, but they kind of stuck together, too. Then there was the ‘rest of us.’
“That is not the case here,” he said. “The official language is English, and there is not many of any one group. There are a maximum of five of one nation, and even the Canadians do not speak the same language. I am really happy here.”
As the saying goes, happy riders make winning riders. After a rather unconventional contract season, Fuglsang is hoping so.