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An interview with Jakob Fuglsang, December 18, 2008
Former Under 23 mountain bike World Champion Jakob Fuglsang collected solid results in his first year as an elite racer and earned two big offers for 2009. Luke Webber found out why one of cross country racing's biggest talents is swapping mud pack for a bumpy life on the road.
Miguel Martinez, Michael Rasmussen, Cadel Evans are all mountain bikers who have made a successful transition from dirt to the road, and their ranks will be strengthened by Jakob Fuglsang in 2009. The news that the Dane would be joining Bjarne Riis and the new Saxo Bank Team, formerly known as Team CSC, came as an end-of-season surprise among the usual plethora of sponsorship swaps, but his leap is an exciting move for one of cycling's most promising prospects.
After several years of success on the mountain bike World Cup Circuit while riding for Cannondale-Vredestein, Fuglsang was seen as a star for the future. His first year as an elite rider included two World Cup podium appearances, Olympic team selection and victory alongside teammate Roel Paulissen in the Cape Epic. His biggest win to date though came in late 2007 with the title of Under 23 World Champion in Fort William.
Upsetting race favourite Nino Schurter of Switzerland may have been a shock for fans and pundits, but it was not such a surprise for Jakob. Two weeks previous, both were preparing at the same race and the young Dane saw the tide turning.
"We were doing a road race in Switzerland just before the worlds, and I could see that I was stronger than Nino, so I knew I would have the mental edge. Winning the worlds in 2007 was the goal for the whole season. Becoming World Champion was my overall goal for mountain biking. I came to the race with the mental image that I could do it."
His win did not come easily. At first, Schurter gained the advantage. "In the beginning he rode away from me," said Fuglsang. "I rode far too safely on the descent. I was not doing a good job there. So I said to myself, 'Either I go 100% and take the risks or you will have to be satisfied with second place.' So from then on, I was riding with everything."
The win set Fuglsang up as the latest hot property in cross country racing in stark contrast to where he was two years before when he was ready to quit mountain biking following a string of bad results. The young Dane was looking for a way out. Fortunately no road teams were interested in him, so he renewed his commitment to mountain biking rather than mixing road and off-road disciplines.
This focus, along with a move from Denmark to Italy, helped Fuglsang become a fixture in the World Cup top ten. However, though his success was off-road, he has been training more as a road rider. "I have been living like a road rider when it comes to training for the last few years. Almost all my training is on the road and then I mountain bike when I get to the race."
Showing promise on the road
Earlier this year, Fuglsang improved his road credentials with a win in the Tour of Denmark, a success that came just before the Olympic Games and would derail his off-road chances in Beijing.
"When I won the Tour of Denmark, it gave me a big mental boost and suddenly there was less pressure on the Olympics. When you are in good shape, you just want to go faster and faster, and you just want to go harder and harder, and with that motivation and good shape, I pushed myself too far," said Fuglsang.
"I didn't even know I was doing it. I did training periods of three days hard (five hours on road with intervals), and then a day off, and three more days hard, and the last three days before I left, I started to feel tired. Of course at the time, I thought I would come good and would rest for six days before the race. When I got to Beijing, I never felt good. I never had that power. In training I would feel fast, but not that same feeling you get when you are flying. In training only ten days earlier, I could feel it. There's nothing I can do about that now though, it is all in the past and I have to forget about it, move on and learn."
The end of a four-year Olympic campaign seemed an ideal way to close the chapter of Fuglsang's mountain bike career - one which has been a story of success, growth and learning.
"I am happy to leave now in one way, but I still have scores to settle. I would like to be senior World Champion but I can't see that happening in the next two years, so now is the time to move on. It is not because I have had enough, but I think it is really difficult to win races. On the road, there is a new challenge for me... new races and I really look forward to them."
Road teams come knocking
The foundations of change were set in motion earlier in the year when Fuglsang employed a manager to search for new contracts. However, it was to be Saxo Bank and Bjarne Riis who proactively sought out the young mountain biker shortly after his win at the Tour of Denmark. But it wasn't just Saxo Bank who was interested.
"Both CSC - Team Saxo Bank and Columbia called - both because of their Danish connections I think," he said. "To have all of those offers is a big compliment, but also shows that all the effort I have put in over the past years pays off now that somebody is interested in me. It has been a long way to the top, I started when I was 12-years-old by mountain biking with friends."
The offer is also something the young rider is taking with responsibility.
"The offer from Saxo Bank is not one I have taken lightly. It is flattering - especially as they still aren't sure exactly what I'm capable of, so it will be interesting. I think they trust me and can see that I can go fast with the Tour of Denmark and that I can win races on the road."
The biggest changes for the road rookie will not come in the form of discipline, but rather in the shape of a more demanding schedule. The lifestyle on a road team is distinctly different than mountain biking in which teams meet up to race on a weekend. On the tarmac, the organization is an extended family with every member training, travelling and racing together. Far from being daunted, Fuglsang is relishing the experience as a way to get the maximum power out of his engine.
"What I really look forward to is that the team will have a lot of structure. On the mountain bike circuit, the attitude is much more laid back - yeah, we'll see how it goes - and that can be a pain in the ass if you really want to do your maximum and then something is in your way. It is a pity that the teams in mountain biking aren't putting a bigger effort into getting everyone together out of season. It is useful for more than morale - product testing for example. Whereas on the road, it seems everything is planned down to the last detail, you are told what to do to reach your destination."
Ready for 2009
Fuglsang's exact plans for 2009 are unknown, but the young Dane is dreaming of racing on the big stage.
"Next year will be a testing year - I will be sent here and there. I would love to do the Giro [d'Italia] or the Vuelta [a España] to test myself. For sure those are some of the races I would love to be good at in the future. I don't know yet how I will perform! For the first few years, if I can do well in some of the smaller Tours I will be happy. I think I am pretty good all around but I want to be recognised as a good climber. That would be great. You don't know until you get out there and maybe because of my skills, I will be better suited to something like Paris Roubaix? This is all to be decided and is exciting."
Another development exciting to Fuglsang is the return of a certain Texan to the professional road scene. Lance Armstrong is somebody that Fuglsang grew up watching, but he never expected to compete with him.
"I didn't bargain for the opportunity to ride against Lance. Of course, he is a big name and he has won a lot of races, but I'm not a fan of his. It will be exciting to see him comeback, but it won't change anything for me.
"Saxo Bank has a few amazing riders like Cancellara. I think he's a good rider and the Schleck brothers, too. There are others like [Paolo] Bettini [Who has retired. - Ed.]. I think he's the [Julien] Absalon of road riding."
Before getting to race against the best comes a solid winter of preparation, including the recent Team Saxo Bank survival camp. The road training itself won't represent much of a change for Fuglsang; he will still take a month off from his bike, a break that will "allow me to come back hungry to suffer again."
A renewed focus appears to be exactly what Fuglsang needs for 2009. If his plan pans out, mountain bike racing will be a distant memory with his new focus entirely on the road.
"With Bjarne and Saxo Bank, it is one thing or the other. Personally, I only want to do one thing. It is too tough in sport to make compromises."
"After that, I have to see what I will do - whether I will make the switch back to mountain biking. But the way I see it, I will be on the road for the rest of my career.