The last of the Ardennes classics gets decided by a cobbled climb. Michael Albasini has powered up the Rue Naniot with 2.5km to go and Rui Costa, Samuel Sanchez and Wout Poels are going to get across while Romain Bardet and Arnold Jeannesson will not. Albasini’s move and Poel’s efforts to get across were the moment the race was won.
The early break is often a rag-tag collection of wildcard invitees hoping for their Warhol TV moment but this time the move was packed with breakaway specialists like Nicolas Edet, 2013 mountains winner in the Vuelta; Alessandro De Marchi, combativity prize in the Tour de France; Thomas de Gendt who almost won the Giro with that Stelvio stage rampage and several more raiders. For all their collective power they were contained by Movistar who set to work early on the front of the bunch.
Perhaps everyone just needed to keep warm? The thermometer said close to freezing at the start and snow on the hills meant a segment of the race was cut out, reducing the distance for the day by five kilometres. While this began to conjurie up images of Bernard Hinault and the sounds of Jacques Brel the race continued without further incident. The effects were to last all day, even if the roads were ridable it didn’t make it any easier, there’s no clothing able to keep racers dry and warm for over six hours and the cold got to many.
Thomas Voeckler launched an attack out the peloton with 60km to go over the Col du Rosier but was solo and therefore went nowhere. Up ahead the breakaway thinned over the climbs and was down to three in Edet, De Gendt and De Marchi over the Col du Maquisard. The Côte de La Redoute came and went, once a strategic high point that had riders trading but now a mere hurdle standing between the peloton and a hot shower on the team bus. While it was ridden fast the main contenders all huddled together.
Carlos Betancur attacked on the Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons. It’s good to see him winning his battle of the bulge but it showed Movistar were trying to control the race: Betancur was attacking to force other teams into action rather than launching a bid to win the race. Few other riders were taking the initiative. Andrei Grivko had a go but probably for the same reasons as Betancur, an opening move for Astana’s in-form Tanel Kangert. Etixx-Quickstep took up the pace prevented moves from going. They seemed to want to control the race but were towing a sizeable group into town and only had a couple of support riders left.
As they switched from the charming woodland into the post-industrial wasteland that is much of Liège Michał Kwiatkowski accelerated and got away with Betancur and Grivko and all seemed to be on manoeuvres for their teams. This suggested Kwiatkowski was working for team mates Wout Poels, Lars Petter Nordhaug and Ben Swift rather than conserving energy for later.
Onto the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and Betancur tried once again but was quickly reeled in. Romain Bardet made an acceleration or two, perhaps sensing the group was too big but not wanting to waste too much energy by trying to thin the group by himself. As huddled and contained as the race looked to viewers many riders were being shelled out the back including Vincenzo Nibali and Simon Gerrans. While Nibali was being dropped, Astana team mate Diego Rosa took off with Katusha’s grand tour hopeful Ilnur Zakarin and if the move didn’t stick for long it used up the last of Etixx’s workmen.
On to the Rue Naniot, normally the humdrum suburban street but Belgium’s version of Cape Canaveral for the day given its new ability to launch riders into stardom. Julien Alaphilippe led, proof that Etixx had ran out of riders and then Michael Albasini took over. Slowly the Swiss rider began to pull away of the cobbles with Rui Costa, Samuel Sanchez and Wout Poels getting across. Behind Bardet was the next rider but looked over for Arnold Jeanneson to come past, he didn’t and the four were away. Poels, a tall and lanky rider and now wrapped in rain gear, had some thinking it was Chris Froome.
Down the descent and up the hill into Ans and Albasini kept working. Too much? Perhaps but this was how we expected Mathew Hayman to ride two weeks ago: to do everything to secure the podium chance of a lifetime. Poels too was trying to tilt the odds by throwing away his gloves, it looked poetic like someone throwing down the gauntlet but it was surely practical, shedding heavy rain soaked gloves that were slipping on the bars and clumsy for gear shifts.
As he rounded the final corner Wout Poels launched his sprint just as Albasini finally took a breather. Perhaps the Swiss rider wanted to check out his rivals for the finish? The moment’s hesitation gave the Dutchman a gap. Albasini tried to close in but Poels had time to sit up and celebrate his biggest win.
A thrilling finish but the race only warmed up with minutes to go. As hard as the grim conditions were it didn’t equate to an epic race that scattered the peloton over the Ardennes thanks to some peloton hardman going full Rambo with 50km to go. Instead a big bunch rode into Liège and over 50 riders finished within two minutes of the winner, something that’s only happened once before in the last decade. Much of the action came out of the back of the bunch, an endurance version of an elimination race on the track.
Ironically for all the hard climbs in the Ardennes it was on a cobbled climb that the race came alive. The Rue Naniot was introduced as a pinch of pepper to spice up the finish. It worked and should be back next year but ideally the race would keep changing the finish so that the riders don’t learn how to race the finish too well. The climb proved selective and Albasini proved the strongest, blowing Alaphilippe off his wheel and only three others could, or dared, to follow.
Team Sky finally get the Monument classic craved by Dave Brailsford, albeit in an unexpected manner. Michał Kwiatkowski was supposed to be their star signing for the Ardennes and if we expected the Pole we got Poels instead. This wasn’t the stereotype Team Sky win where the team asphyxiates a race before launching their lead rider. Poels rode a crafty race and delivered a powerful sprint.
What of the big picks? For all their work Movistar and Etixx-Quickstep get no rewards. They tried to control the race all day only to lose their grip when it mattered late on. Alejandro Valverde finished 16th, Julian Alaphilippe 23rd and Dan Martin 47th, almost two minutes down.
That’s it for the spring classics. Stage races take over now with the tasty looking hors-d’oeuvre of the Tour de Romandie ahead of the Giro. Among the stage racers Ilnur Zakarin was the surprise today with fifth place and a dark horse for the Giro; Nibali was 51st today. Rafał Majka crashed but finished, word is that he’ll be ok.