A thrilling finale with tension all the way to the final metres. Philippe Gilbert has eased up and Oscar Freire has been caught. Now Jelle Vanendert and Peter Sagan sprint for the line but behind them Enrico Gasparotto of Astana starts to accelerate. The Italian tracked the leaders up the final climb and timed his sprint to perfection to surge past in the last 20 metres. This was the moment the race was won.
It was cold on the start line. Even 1200km away in Spain icy conditions were making riders protest ahead of the Vuelta Castilla y Léon stage. Back in the Netherlands seven riders got a prompt warm up as they jumped away after 40km of racing and were joined by two more riders. But there was dispute in the break, they’d taken 12 minutes on the bunch when race radio reported a small fist fight broke out between riders in the breakaway. Apparently they were bickering over when to stop for a pee. This bizarre incident saw the lead fall to eight minutes in no time.
Behind the pace was picking up although those watching on Eurosport still found more entertainment in the ad breaks, for example watching Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali cooking a shoe.
Back to the race and the bunch deftly navigated archipelagos of traffic islands and at times the race looked like a promotional tour for an urban planning catalogue with bollards, islands and more sleeping policemen than a hot afternoon in Mexico. Instead it was the rural sections that took their toll with the narrow lanes provoking a series of punctures and the hills did some early damage as riders were being dropped including Cadel Evans.
A word to celebrate Alex Howes (Garmin-Barracuda) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). The two neo-pros were in the day’s breakaway but when the gap started to fall towards a minute it was Bardet who attacked to get rid of the tired riders. A few riders joined him and then again he went and only Howes could, or would, follow. The pair held off the bunch and climbed the penultimate climb of the Keutenberg when Bardet ditched Howes and carried on solo, only being caught with 10km to go. Not bad for a neo pro.
By now the bunch had been shredded by the climbing and about 30 riders were left and Oscar Freire took off with 10km to go. Always a surprise to see a sprinter on the attack but it was a good move for his team with team mate Joaquim Rodríguez behind. It made BMC and Lampre chase and in time Astana joined.
With 2km to go Freire led by 12 seconds when Nicki Terpstra jumped from the bunch and closed in Freire but the chase was not far behind. A lone rider reaching the final climb needs a decent buffer and neither Terpstra or Freire were going to resist, although for a brief moment we got to a glimpse of Freire’s climbing style.
If today was a day of surprise, the biggest wonder of the day was Philippe Gilbert. He led the chase up the Cauberg right from the start and kept churning a huge gear only to be passed shortly before the finish line. Let’s use the conditional for a moment: what if he had a team mate to do some of the work? And if he was feeling more confident, maybe he would not have put out such an effort so early? Maybe he could have won?
But he didn’t. No ifs as Sky’s Lars Petter Nordhaug and Lampre’s Damiano Cunego butted and crashed hard. Ahead of the damage Peter Sagan, Jelle Vanendert and Enrico Gasparotto were perfectly placed behind Gilbert and put time into the others. Look at the photo and you can see the trio. With Astana’s Maxim Iglinskiy to block on one side and Terpstra slowing on the others, Vanendert and Sagan had the momentum to get Gilbert back.
Gilbert’s giant pull allowed the four to finally reel in Freire and Gasparotto led the chase on the final part of the rise. But as soon as the slope eased so did Gilbert. Sagan led out the sprint with Vanendert then Gasparotto. For a moment in time at 20 metres to go we got three riders side by side for the sprint… but only because Gasparotto had the momentum and was surging clear for the win, leaving Vanendert banging the handlebars in a rage of cliché. It was a perfectly timed move.
Was it a surprise win? Well Gasparotto is an expert in uphill finishes; few had him down for the win but a podium was always possible. After all, look at the photo evidence from the Amstel podium in 2010.
If anything Gasparotto brings other surprises. Today saw the first Italian win in a classic since 2009 when Davide Rebellin won the Flèche Wallonne. A late starter in cycling, Gasparotto in the youth squad of AC Milan, one of the most prestigious clubs in Italian soccer. He’s also the son of a winegrower in Friuli… who today won the Dutch race sponsored by a brewery.