FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali, and Alejandro Valverde; those are the names that are garnering buzz ahead of Sunday’s elite men’s road race. Edvald Boasson Hagen? He’s barely a blip on the radar.
And that probably suits the shy, 26-year-old Norwegian just fine. The introverted Boasson Hagen is certainly one to let his legs do the talking, but the big question going into this weekend’s rainbow jersey rumble is whether he can get over the climbs to contest for the world title.
Even Boasson Hagen isn’t so sure. Speaking to VeloNews during the Vuelta a España, he said everything depends on how the race shakes out.
“There is a lot of climbing, but I am not afraid of that,” he said. “The course is difficult, yes, so we will see how the racing goes. If it’s selective, it will be difficult, but if it stays together, maybe.”
The 272-kilometer course features vertical meters of climbing on par with a “queen stage” at a grand tour. The difference, however, is the altitude in Florence is gained in small bites on each circuit lap as opposed to long, 20km climbs in grand tour stages.
Boasson Hagen certainly cannot make it up with the sleekest climbers at Mont Ventoux or l’Alpe d’Huez, but a circuit course is a different animal.
Though certainly not climber-skinny, Boasson Hagen can power up the hills when they’re not extremely long and steep. Whether he can stay with the attacks on Sunday is another question.
Now in his eighth professional season, Boasson Hagen packs the experience of a veteran still within a young, improving engine. He seems a natural to win a world title someday. His lean frame packs a mean finishing sprint as well as the durability in his motor to go the distance.
A winner of such races at Ghent-Wevelgem, Vattenfall Cyclassics, GP Ouest France, and two Tour de France stages, Boasson Hagen has come close before in the worlds, finishing eighth in 2011, and kicking to second last year behind Philippe Gilbert in Valkenburg.
This year’s worlds course is much harder than the Dutch circuit last year that finished up the Cauberg. Even Gilbert, who pipped Boasson Hagen in stage 12 at the Vuelta, admitted it might be too hard for him, and the Belgian is an even better climber than Boasson Hagen on a good day.
Yet both Boasson Hagen and Gilbert have something the spindly climbers do not, and that’s a lethal, game-changing acceleration at the end of a hard effort.
While many tip punchy climbers such as Daniel Martin, Nibali, or Rigoberto Urán as potential winners, some believe if it comes down to a reduced bunch sprint, someone like Boasson Hagen could come up spades.
Another question mark for Boasson Hagen will be his fitness. After crashing out of the Tour de France with a painful fracture to his right scapula, he returned to action at the Vuelta. He made it through the climb-heavy Vuelta with improving condition, finishing with two second-place results in stages and seven top-10s. Still, Boasson Hagen could be a touch off top form.
It’s not so much a question of going the distance, but rather having the legs to respond to the attacks on the climbs in the closing circuits when the world title will be won or lost.
Nicolas Portal, Boasson Hagen’s sport director at Sky, said the Norwegian is destined to win a world title, but admitted it might not be this year.
“Edvald is coming out the Vuelta very strong,” Portal told VeloNews. “He is very motivated to make a good worlds. Maybe the course is not perfect for him. Maybe there is too much climbing. Everything depends on how the race is run, and things like tactics, the weather. I would not be surprised to see him close.”
If the weather turns south, and forecasters are calling for a chance of rain Sunday, Boasson Hagen’s chances would only improve. The Norwegian has no fear of the wet and seems immune to cold, torrid conditions where others so often struggle.
He might find himself well alone, however, and that could be a major factor in how the race plays out. Norway brings only three starters, including former world champion Thor Hushovd. That means neither of the top Norwegians will be able to count on much team support, especially with Hushovd likely to race his own race despite struggling through two sub-par seasons at BMC Racing. That’s sure to provoke a polemic in Norway, which already saw controversy in 2011, when Hushovd and Boasson Hagen both lined up in Denmark as potential winners. The third Norwegian is strong all-rounder Lars Petter Nordhaug.
Norway knows it will have to be clever to have a chance to win. National coach Stig Kristiansen said Boasson Hagen will have one card to play.
“We see three possible scenarios,” Kristiansen said in a press conference earlier this month. “The first is that the climbers ride hard from the beginning to drop the fastest riders. [Chris] Froome doesn’t want to be sprinting against Hushovd. Nordhaug is a strong climber, and can last a long time.
“If the pace is more cautious, we have Edvald,” Kristiansen continued. “He is very fast in a small group, and knows how to follow the right move. If all three are still there in a 40-rider group, then we’d work to set up Hushovd.”
Now matter what happens, Boasson Hagen knows he will line up Sunday as an outsider, and that means he will have almost no pressure.
Many are asking when he will deliver the big win that was expected of him when he turned pro in 2006. Following two big seasons with HTC-Highroad in 2008-09, when he won Ghent-Wevelgem and a stage at the Giro d’Italia as well as overall titles at the Tour of Britain and the Eneco Tour, Boasson Hagen seems to have faded into the woodwork.
Many who tapped Boasson Hagen as a rider in the mold of the great Eddy Merckx are wondering what happened. Irish journalist Paul Kimmage asked that very question at a pre-Tour press conference on Corsica.
“My role is different on Sky,” Boasson Hagen said. “Now I am racing all the top races, and it’s more difficult to win. I am still improving as a rider. I think I can win some big races.”
Once he switched to Sky, his role changed dramatically from the free hand that he once enjoyed at Highroad. He is now a designed domestique at the Tour, a job he insists he enjoys, though he fully takes advantage of the chances he’s given in July. With no help in the finales, Boasson Hagen still mustered four top-5s before crashing out in stage 12.
And even when he does get a chance, it’s now Peter Sagan who is winning on the tougher, uphill finales where Boasson Hagen mastered just a few seasons ago.
Despite focusing on the classics earlier this year, Boasson Hagen’s spring campaign was sub-par by his standards. His best results came with the overall at the Tour of Norway, a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné and the national time trial title, proving that even Sky cannot program and control the chaotic, one-day classics with the expertise that they have mastered stage races.
During the classics, Boasson Hagen never rode into race-winning position, finishing ninth at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, 20th at Ghent-Wevelgem, 17th at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and 47th at Paris-Roubaix. He abandoned Amstel Gold Race and took a month off before returning to win the Tour of Norway.
Portal, however, said that big breakout win, something like a monument or a world title, is only a question of time.
“Edvald is so strong. He is so important to the team. He will win a really big race, I am sure of that,” Portal said. “That is cycling. You have to keep fighting. To win a big race is never easy. You need luck, too.”
The odds makers agree Boasson Hagen is a fringe favorite at best. Fabian Cancellara is heavily favored at 4-to-1, with Sagan at 5-to-1. Nibali slots in at 14-to-1. Boasson Hagen? 40-to-1. That might be worth waging a tenner.