Who would have thought that the first man to bring Sky their long awaited Monument victory would be Wout Poels at Liège-Bastogne-Liège? That isn’t meant to be a slight on Poels, a fine rider who really shone bright for Chris Froome on Alpe d’Huez last year and who has had a solid start to this season, including a 4th place finish at Flèche Wallonne just a few days ago. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, but the money being thrown about on who might do it first must surely have been going on someone like Michal Kwiatkowski. In many ways he was brought in to break the duck.
Still, Kwiatkowski ended up shining brighter on the cobbled classics than the hillier ones in which many felt suited him best and it was Poels who emerged from the sleet and snow and rain on a friged cold day in the Ardennes to out manoeuver his three late breakaway companions to win it on the line.
It was far from an epic race, but held in epic conditions. Not quite Hinault in ’80 but snowing nonetheless. The kind we always long for in the spring Monuments and which the riders dread. The challenge for them increases imeasurably as they fight to keep warm, to stay upright and to stop their legs from freezing up when they look to them to respond. The challenge for those of us watching on television increase a little as we fight to see which rider is which as rain capes cover numbers.
It soon became clear, rain cape or otherwise, that it wasn’t Chris Froome surging clear of the ever reducing pack to bridge across to Michael Albasini on the new final climb of Rue Naniot, a straight up 600m cobbled climb with an average gradient of 11%, but rather it was Poels. Joining Albasini, Rui Costa and Samuel Sanchez the race finally had a move that could stick, albeit cresting the climb only a handful of seconds to the good, but close enough to the finish to drive on. Costa seemed the most savvy to pull off the win, with his World Championship victory still in our minds, and yet it was Poels who came out of that infamous final corner and began his sprint immediately, catching the other three out and creating the gap that Albasini couldn’t close before the line and denying Orica GreenEdge a Paris-Roubaix / Liège-Bastogne-Liège double.
At last the dam has broken; the floodgates are open for Sky…or at least that’s what they will now hope. We’ll have to wait until October to find out if they can build on this Monument glory. For now though they’ll feel a sense of satisfaction, a boost of confidence for the whole team as the spring classics season comes to an end and racing turns to the summer and the Grand Tours with the Giro only a handful of days away.
|1. Wout Poels (Sky)
2. Michael Albasini (Orica GreenEdge)
3. Rui Costa (Lampre)
4. Samuel Sanchez (BMC)
5. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha)
6. Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin)
in 6h 24′ 29″
Yes, there is Alejandro Valverde, down in the lowly depths of 16th. A position of pride for most entrants, but way below his usual standards in the Ardennes. Indeed the veteran Spaniard won the La Flèche Wallonne for the 4th time (a record, and they should consider naming the race after him now!) earlier in the week and seemed odds on favourite to win his 4th Liège-Bastogne-Liège but will have to settle the one victory this time. Still a look at Valverde’s results in the Ardennes classics (including Amstel Gold followed by Flèche then Liège) since 2013 shows you why he’ll feel he came up a little short with 16th on Sunday:
2nd, 7th, 3rd; 4th, 1st, 2nd; 2nd, 1st, 1st; DNS, 1st, 16th.
La Flèche Wallonne result:
|1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick Step)
3. Dan Martin (Etixx – Quick Step)
4. Wout Poels (Sky)
in 4h 43′ 57″
In other racing news the six stage Tour of Croatia and the four stage Giro del Trentino were taking place this past week. At the former it was Matija Kvasina who won overall but bigger story was Mark Cavendish winning a stage. At the later it was Mikel Landa who looked in very impressive form ahead of the Giro with the overall win to go with a stage win and a 3rd and 6th in the two other road stages.
Rider of the week:
It seems of late I’ve been getting this easy by just going with the guy who won the weeks biggest named race, but come on…this was a Monument and Wout Poels won Sky’s first ever. That has to be worthy of the weekly prize.