Three faces, three grimaces but Jacob Fuglsang is almost cracking a smile and he’s just about to ride Michael Woods and Davide Formolo off his wheel to go solo for the win and for once Julian Alaphilippe isn’t going to threaten him.
Enjoy a cold shower? It’s bracing for a few seconds but try it for hours on end and it’s called racing. The previous week’s Amstel Gold Race with its apple blossom and warm sunshine felt like a different season. It wasn’t snowing in Liège but riders still needed gloves and wardrobe choices mattered. Riders needed to stay as warm as possible while avoiding a boil-in-the-bag scenario where they’d overheat and sweat underneath rainproof layers. An early break went clear and it was as menacing as a waffle although it contained a big engine in Tobias Ludvigsson of Groupama-FDJ and breakaway regular Julien Bernard of Trek-Segafredo.
Quickstep took up the chase with 100km to go on the approach to the Wanne-Stockeu-Haute Levée climbs and the race defrosted with 75km to go, promising for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, after an attack from Philippe Gilbert helped split the field and a group went clear with Greg Van Avermaet a visible presence. The increased pace saw lone breakaway survivor Julian Bernard caught.
At the foot of the Col du Rosier Tanel Kangert attacked with Omar Fraile. Team mates at Astana last year, now Kangert was there in the pink and blue tie-dye EF Education jersey, a transfer over the winter that you’d forgive even EF team staff from missing. Over the top of the long mountain pass a larger group went in pursuit but for once this spring it had no Deceuninck-Quickstep riders and the team were forced to chase.
Kangert and Fraile were caught but on La Redoute Kangert went solo again. Behind the bunch seemed to huddle on La Redoute as if the riders wanted to read every “PHIL” daubed on the road but more likely many legs were blunted by the cold and the breakaway still up the road was keeping a lid on things: anyone still with the energy to surge clear would just make it across to the breakaway and find a group of suckerfish ready to sit on their wheel.
With 25km to go Tanel Kangert was finally caught by Patrick Konrad of Bora-Hansgrohe as the German team was starting to use its numerical advantage just as Deceuninck-Quickstep was running out of riders, Philippe Gilbert having been dropped like an anvil on the Côte des Forges. Tim Wellens and Daryl Impey jumped away to bridge across to Kangert and Konrad and if the quartet looked unlikely to win they seemed to be getting an option on the finish as they built up a buffer ahead of the final climb, the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons.
Then Astana rushed to the front with almost a full team – only Alexey Lutsenko was missing – with five riders pulling for their leader Jacob Fuglsang. It was an obvious and imposing tactic, more sledgehammer than scalpel but that’s Astana and it worked. Fuglsang went clear with Michael Woods and Davide Formolo for company as Julian Alaphilippe vanished, shades of Innsbruck last year when he faded on the final climb. The Côte de la Roche aux Faucons has its official summit and then famously it dips before rising up for 1.5km at 5.5%, no mountain but by now it’s a crowbar that levers apart any differences. Woods was sporting one leg warmer, as if caught out while trying to remove layers for the finish while Formolo’s still cherubic face was contorted as if he was going to burst into tears any moment and call for his mamma.
Having broken Woods and Formolo, Fuglsang was clear and with a margin and a descent into Liège and as he dropped down through woodland he was carving every corner to the point of a high speed wobble as his rear wheel slipped on a painted road marking and for a split second his win was in jeopardy but his speed and momentum corrected things and he was back in a straight line to take his big win. Formolo held on for second place while Max Schachmann finished his classics season by winning the sprint for third place out of a group of containing Mikel Landa, Adam Yates, David Gaudu and Vincenzo Nibali the others.
An emphatic win for Fuglsang who has enjoyed his best ever spring classics season thanks to a collection of near-misses. Here he went for the win and got it, blowing the field off his back wheel to win solo in Liège. It wasn’t a thriller though, there were no constantly changing scenarios, the breakaways were reeled by the strong teams and Fuglsang’s attack was signalled from so far out that if it had urgency it wasn’t a surprise. But those sitting on a sofa in a warm room couldn’t ask for much more.
It’s Fuglsang’s biggest victory by far, until now his best has been the Critérium du Dauphiné overall and stage wins in the Dauphiné and the Tour de Romandie, high quality but his is a palmarès more about the races lost than won, he’s often been on the podium but rarely the top step, and he’s often placed second, for example second in the Tour de Suisse last year, second on the Rio Olympics; or worse got the chocolate medal for fourth place so many times. He’s also been second as in second choice at Astana where he’s been deputy to the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru. He’d been a danger for becoming a “forgotten rider” as the Dutch website Het is Koers celebrates regularly, those who enliven many a race but are forgotten because their name was hardly ever engraved on a trophy, nor became a line of code on Wikipedia. Fuglsang’s been a staple of races this decade but almost never a victor. What’s made Astana so good this season? One tweet that flew by yesterday suggested Fabio Aru’s departure meant the team became united in the absence of the Italian clique… but Aru left the year before last.
Is the new finish better? It’s too soon to tell given the cold conditions iced the racing but in favour Liège finish is the idea of Fuglsang attacking for the win on the Roche-aux-Faucons, a relatively long-range move. Maybe 2020 will tell us more. It marks the end of the classics season, yes there’s the Frankfurt GP this week but now attention turns to the Tour de Romandie and the Giro will be here very soon. For all Astana’s strength so far this season the question is whether they can keep this up over the coming months.