To say that Danish rider Michael Valgren had a breakout year in 2018 would be an understatement. After all, he won both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Amstel Gold Race, two of cycling’s more coveted classics. But few in the peloton were surprised by Valgren’s success, as the punchy rider is respected for his tactical savvy, a key ingredient for a great classics rider. Moving to the Dimension Data team this year, the 27-year-old hopes to build on the success of 2018 with an eye on his dream race, the Tour of Flanders. PELOTON caught up with the amiable Dane as he prepared to defend his Het Nieuwsblad title this weekend.
Interview: James Startt | Images: James Startt & Mario Stiehl
PELOTON: Michael, I’ve been following you since your U23 days, but 2018 was really a breakout season for you as a professional. I mean, you had an amazing year, winning great races like Het Nieuwsblad and the Amstel Gold Race. Were you surprised to win two such big classics?
Michael Valgren: Oh yeah! I think I knew that I had it in me, but to actually win two big classics was a surprise for sure. But that has always been my goal, to be up there with the best guys in the big classics. A part of me deep inside knew that I could do it, but I just needed a little bit of luck and some good legs—and last year I found both! It was super-nice!
PELOTON: One thing that impressed me was that Nieuwsblad and Amstel are very different classics and yet you won both.
Valgren: Yeah, there is more than a month in between them and they are really, really different. But that said there are guys like Greg Van Avermaet or Peter Sagan that could win both races, but they just haven’t done it yet, haven’t had the luck or whatever.
PELOTON: For your victories last year, you showed real tactical acumen. Winning Nieuwsblad came at the end of numerous attacks in the finale, but it was yours that worked. And then at Amstel you really had to calculate when to launch your final sprint as a chase group was quickly closing the gap. Where did you learn to be so smart on the bike?
Valgren: Ha-ha! I don’t really know! Some of it goes back to my amateur days, or when I first turned pro with the Glud & Marstrand-LRØ team. I was only 19 but I was with a lot of older, experienced riders. We were one of the strongest teams in Denmark and we always raced for the win. [Frequently being in a winning situation] really helps.
PELOTON: Some people call it the science of racing, but you are one of those guys who can make snap decisions in the heat of racing. And such decisions can often be the difference between winning and losing. Since riding with Saxo Bank you have ridden with a lot of great professionals. Did any one rider really help you evolve in the pro ranks?
Valgren: I would say Nicki Sørensen. He really took me under his arm. He had been a professional for like 15 years. He knew he was at the end of his career but he really knew cycling and he knew how to talk to me and help me become a good bike rider. Cycling can be so mental. You can train really hard but if you don’t have your head in the game then you might as well stay in bed. Nicki helped me with so many things really. For example, he taught me the importance of doing a race recon and watching previous editions of certain races. That was something I didn’t do before, but it really helped me anticipate certain situations, as well as understand my competition better, to know who might be at the front in a certain race and how they might race it.
PELOTON: You’ve won two great classics already. What is the race you most dream of winning?
Valgren: Flanders! It is the best race there is, I reckon. I have done it two times and there is just so much stuff going on. You have to be alert all the time. The weather can be brutal and you have to be brutal yourself to stay in position. There are so many little things going on all the time. It is great race for the spectators—and just amazing to ride!
PELOTON: What would you say you are missing at the moment? What do you need to win it?
Valgren: Well, I would say a little luck and knowledge. I was 11th in 2017, the first year I did it, and fourth last year, so I know I can be up there.
PELOTON: And what about Paris–Roubaix. Does the Hell of the North make you dream?
Valgren: No, not yet. I think it is too early. Perhaps if I wait until I am 39 like Mathew Hayman! [Hayman was actually 37 when he won in 2017, the event’s third oldest winner.]
PELOTON: After several years with Astana you have moved to Dimension Data, where you are one of the team leaders in the classics, along with riders such as Edvald Boasson Hagen. That has the makings of a pretty tough classics team.
Valgren: Yeah, they are really helping me out 100 percent. There are a lot of good, experienced riders for the classics and we can really help each other out, and we have great equipment. I really love our new BMC bikes. They are fast, they are stiff and they handle well. They are everything a good bike should be!