With 200m to go Daniel Moreno accelerates, building momentum on the last part of the steep slope to distance Philippe Gilbert and pass an increasingly static Carlos Betancur. This was the moment the race was won.
Often there’s plenty to analyse in a race because each event is page in the script and Sunday brings one of the season’s biggest one day acts. But it’s hard to draw too many lessons from today in advance of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The problem lies with the formula and status of the race.
The race was briefly under threat. A large steel plant nearby is going to be closed. Obviously upset workers came to the race to protest but matters were calm and the union distributed pamphlets to explain what was happening.
As unions waved red banners the red-shirted workers of BMC Racing got to work to control the race. Attacks were controlled and one point we saw Andy Schleck at the front of the race, a sign his recovery is slowly continuing in the right direction. The TV coverage was suffering from production issues, the image jumping like a badly-animated GIF. But French TV said Vacansoleil will end their sponsorship of the Dutch cycling team, saying the news came out earlier this week (I missed it… and so did everyone else?).
Mur de Oui
Carlos Betancur took off from the bunch early on the climb. It looked mad. Each year someone tries their luck only to crack in no time. But the Colombian seemed to have vanished up the road and quickly took 10 seconds’ lead. Behind the bunch was climbing fast but spread across the road. Gilbert led as the slopes kicked up. He’s almost local and the emblem of Walloon cycling, you can imagine the crowds of Huy and beyond shouting “oui” as he was in the ideal position. But then Daniel More-no launched an acceleration that left Gilbert stuck.
Today’s winner is a specialist at uphill finishes. In 2011 he was eighth in the race and last year took two uphill stage finishes in the Dauphiné. Above all he was fifth overall in the Vuelta, a result that’s easily overlooked.
A word on Betancur too. Seeing an Ag2r jersey attacking in the final of a race is rare but that’s Betancur for you. A punchy climber he had two years at Acqua e Sapone in Italy and in his first year as a pro he rode the Giro and managed fourth place on the final mountain stage to Sestriere. He’s long been regarded as an exciting rider and became the subject of a contractual tug of war after the end of his first year. It’s also an obvious vindication for the French team’s policy change, gone are the Iranians and Slovenians hired in such mercenary fashion for their points, now the team is focussing on results ahead of points and it’s paying dividends.
The sun rose, birds sang, Marianne Vos won and night will follow day. Yes but she didn’t win last year so the Dutch champion seemed especially pleased with the win today. It’s reportedly her 50th pro win.
Lessons For Liège
Philippe Gilbert seems to be “sinning by pride” as they say in French, being too bold with his attacks only to get caught before the line. But his form seems to be on an upward trajectory and physical ability and mental confidence could intercept in time for Sunday. For me Alejandro Valverde is the quiet pick for Sunday, he looked fine on the climb today. Of course Katusha now come with two riders in Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez. Team Sky have that last classics chance, we saw them winning in Trentino today as if their GC riders keep performing when their classics squad don’t. But there’s more to it than that as we saw Richie Porte dropped in today’s race in Belgium.
Fetch Wall Yawn
At 200km it’s too short to blow the field apart but doesn’t have enough climbing to make it selective enough. Is it enough to have a race that’s really only worth watching for the last 10 minutes? Ask a rider and they’ll tell you of the narrow roads, the way the pace picks up with 50km to go and the crosswinds. But the aggressive racing and the tough course just don’t appear on TV. All we see is the bunch fetching any breakaways, the race hits the wall and then the riders undergo a 150 second ramp test. Sure it’s exciting for a few minutes but does it merit hours of TV airtime?
Suggestions are easier said than done but the obvious answer is to send the race up the Mur more often, to use a shorter finishing circuit. The Mur de Huy is great and besides, ASO have a contract with the town until 2019. A circuit would have the virtue of being crowd friendly too.