The Norwegian has eyes on competing at the Vuelta a Espana in August
Having been part of the inaugural UAE cycling team to take on the sport’s most grandiose event last year, you might well expect his omission from the 2018 Tour de France contingent to be a bone of contention for Vegard Stake Laengen.
But the Norwegian has his eyes locked on a bigger prize, competing at the third and final Grand Tour race of the season, the Vuelta a Espana, in August.
Plus, after having been part of the UAE Team Emirates squad that took on the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, as the famous Meat Loaf song goes, ‘Two out of three ain’t bad’.
La Vuelta – which forms a third of cycling’s triple crown of races along with the Giro and of course Le Tour – begins in just under a month and is the scene of Laengen’s highest Grand Tour finish to date.
He came 81st in 2016, having claimed 83rd spot at the Giro on his Grand Tour debut earlier that year.
And having raced in his inaugural Tour de France in 2017, he revealed there was no semblance of sadness at not being selected as part of this year’s team with the Vuelta on the horizon.
“For me it’s the better combination to do the Giro and then recover for the Vuelta,” the 29-year-old, recently crowned Norway’s road race champion for the first time, tells Sport360.
“Start training for the Vuelta is next. Having time to get in good shape again (from competing at the Giro).”
The team heading to Spain for the August 25 start of the Vuelta is likely to contain many of the same riders that tried to deliver Fabio Aru to a home victory at the Giro back in May – with the superstar Sardinian having moved to UAE Team Emirates for 2018.
But it’s been a difficult start to life at his new team, with the 28-year-old forced to abandon his elusive pursuit of a Giro crown – he finished third in 2014 and second a year later – after finding himself more than 45 minutes down on race leader Simon Yates in the latter stages of the race, in May.
Aru and Laengen are likely to be paired together again for the final Grand Tour race of the UCI’s 2018 WorldTour calendar, a race Aru won in 2015.
And the Classics specialist is expecting Il cavaliere dei quattro mori (Knight of the four Moors) to be back to his best and move into contention at the Vuelta.
“My personal goal is to be in some breakaways and fight for victories,” said Laengen.
“We will see what sort of chances I get because we are going there with Fabio Aru I think and it will be the same as the Giro. The whole team have to work a lot for him. Hopefully he can fight back from what happened in the Giro.”
Asked why Aru – who moved to UAE Team Emirates in the off-season after struggling to reach the heights of 2014 and 2015 with Astana in recent years – had endured a frustrating start to life with his new team, Laengen said: “It’s always hard to find the cause.
“I haven’t personally spoken with him after the Giro, I know the team has to try and find out the problems.
“It’s always like this when you change teams. It can take time for any rider. Hopefully he can be more relaxed and can show his best again.”
Probed if he thought Aru was too good a rider not to return to his best, the Oslo rider added: “Yes. Normally Fabio will come back strong.
“Maybe he needs some time off because from January he was focused on the Giro with a lot of training camps. Lot of pressure.
“I think that was maybe too much and perhaps now he will be more relaxed and has taken some time for himself with no racing and hopefully that will have a positive impact.
“I hope we have the same team as at the Giro as I think we will be stronger individually and collectively. It’s good to have the Giro because it’s a hard block of racing. You need to find the legs. I did well at the nationals so hopefully I can maintain the legs and use them for later in the season.”
Laengen finished 127th overall at last year’s Tour de France, with their South African former rider Louis Meintjes claiming eighth place in the GC standings. Meintjes was also runner-up to Orica-Scott’s Simon Yates in the young rider classification, while Darwin Atapuma came fourth in the mountains category.
This year, Dan Martin is inside the top-10 overall at ninth place, while both he and Laengen’s compatriot, Alexander Kristoff, are among the top-10 riders in the points section (Kristoff is second to Peter Sagan), while Irishman Martin is sixth in the mountains classification.
He also raced to victory on Stage 6 – UAE Team Emirates’ maiden stage triumph at Le Tour.
And even though he has raced at this year’s Giro and is likely headed to the Vuelta too, Laengen admits nothing compares to the Tour de France for professional cyclists.
“The Tour is a really special race, the biggest of them all,” he said.
“The Vuelta and Giro are famous but nothing compared to the Tour. Norwegian supporters and journalists are going there for that when I was there so that’s also a part of the job.
“Normally at the Giro I can just focus on my cycling but at the Tour it’s something to do every day, so it’s special.”
Of his own Tour experiences from 2017, Laengen has fond memories.
“I remember a lot of it. Lots of fans at the start, finish and during the course. A special atmosphere,” he said.
“On the climbs too. Giro is the hardest Grand Tour, I feel like at the Tour there are more flat sections and it’s more sprinter friendly so between the hard mountain stages you can recover more.
“That part is easier but on the other side with all the media and attention it’s a hard race every day.
“I don’t remember the exact stage (last year) but it was during the first week, there was a breakaway and then we were three guys cycling for the victory.
“That day I got a prize for the most aggressive rider and got to go on the podium, so that was something very special.”
Laengen joined Kristoff in the ranks of Norwegian cycling greats last month when he won the Road Race at the National Championships – held in Sandefjord on June 24.
It was finally gold for Laengen having previously come so close – he was third in 2015 and had to settle for silver behind current teammate Kristoff in 2011.
“It was pretty special because now I can have the jersey for one year and that’s something I’ve always dreamed of,” he added.
“It’s a national race so it’s hard to do it on your own. I’ve come to the race alone before.
“Now I had Kristoff and (another UAE Team Emirates Norwegian Sven Erik) Bystrom and the team so it was easier to finally make it.
“They did a good job in the start but following the breakaway I was in front. It was good for me because I knew I had a chance.
“It was good to get something back.
“To join that list of winners was great. (Edvald) Boasson Hagen and Kristoff, a lot of big names, famous in Europe, so it’s good to finally join them.
“For Norwegian riders it’s something special. It’s not the level of a WorldTour race obviously but if I could win a Grand Tour stage victory, that would be the best.
“That’s next for me to achieve in my career.”