Katusha’s Giampolo Caruso is the the last attacker of the day. He led into the final bend but a trio of Simon Gerrans, Alejandro Valverde and Michał Kwiatkowski storm past to sweep the podium. This was the moment the race was won.
It marked a thrilling finish but it was a moment that might have had rattled millions of television viewers out of their siesta after they’d fallen asleep during Sunday afternoon’s coverage.
The race was sent off by Philippe, King of the Belgians. Cycling isn’t a religion in Belgium but it attracts fervent support and the monarch was on duty in Liège while the abdicated Albert was on duty in the Vatican for the beatification ceremony. Priorities.
Two riders who didn’t get the royal wave were Chris Froome and Carlos Betancur. Sky said Froome had a cold and it was a shame the they couldn’t wrap in him thermals and get him to the start, if only for the waiting public.
The early break had Pirmin Lang (IAM), Michel Koch (Cannondale), Jaco Venter (MTN-Qhubeka), Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Pieter Jacobs (Topsport Vlaanderen – Baloise) and Marco Minnard (Wanty-Gobert) and they rode clear with ease, taking over 15 minutes. Koch won the special €5,000 sprint in Bastogne, some bonus cash for his team. Behind OPQS, BMC, Movistar and Lotto-Belisol were visible chasing.
The chase was tense, even if breakaway still had a double-digit lead in minutes the bunch was lined out on the descents and the climbs looked like sprints. Jan Bakelants (OPQS) managed to crash uphill. It wasn’t his fault, riders were fighting for position. Pierre Rolland had a go with 81km to go but was brought back. Ditto for Garmin-Sharp’s Ramunas Navardauskas. Two powerful riders weren’t being given any room despite such a long way to go.
Andy Schleck abandoned. It mattered because this has long been his preferred race and other disappointments were only setbacks on the way to his Ardennes rendez-vous but he’s missed his stated appointment. Schleck Junior wasn’t the only one down and out, Joaquim Rodriguez quit the race along with Rui Costa, presumably the pair didn’t share a seat in the broomwagon and the Spaniard will worry about his Giro hopes. Meanwhile Team Sky had vanished en masse. Only Nathan Earle would finish the race.
The climb of La Redoute looked like a carnival. Fans had painted PHIL 800 times on the road and there were an estimated 10,000 fans by the road. But if it looked like a carnival, the bunch went past like one giant floating procession. The break began to crack but behind the bunch was sticking together until Warren Barguil jumped clear, briefly joined by Trek’s Julián Arredondo and Bakelants. But behind a large group was chasing.
There was a chase but it wasn’t so fierce. It certainly allowed Bono to go solo Côte des Forges as Venter cracked and bored Twitter users to crack U2-themed jokes. Behind Alex Howes of Garmin-Sharp tried a move up the climb but was reeled in soon after. Still no attacks from the big riders, still none of the lesser names being allowed more than 10-15 seconds.
On to the Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons. A feared climb it was the place where the first big moves too shape. Trek Factory Racing’s Julián David Arredondo and Ag2r’s Domenico Pozzovivo took off, more sparrows than falcons. BMC’s Samuel Sanchez tried to chase and we got to see the main contenders in action. Roman Kreuziger led the chase with Damiano Cunego, Jacob Fuglsang and Vincenzo Nibali in the mix. Gilbert was noticeably absent as was Valverde… until he cruised across with the ease of a moto commissiare.
Arredondo and Pozzovivo were ahead for 10km until they got caught on the downhill run to Liège, their small statures – 1m64 and 1m65 respectively – a penalty on the descent. Movistar led the race around the factory buildings, a route seemingly designed to discourage visitors. Onto the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and IAM’s Stefan Denifl went clear but his escape was brief and over the top Katusha’s Giampaulo Caruso and Pozzovivo went away and crucially the peloton behind had fragmented. Belkin’s Bauke Mollema led the chase but, despite giving it everything with his head-twisting style, couldn’t close the gap.
Pozzovivo and Caruso had team mates behind so the others in the chasing group seemed reluctant to move, instead we got a series of individual moves each doomed to fail. Rolland. Vanendert. Nibali. Nordhaug. Nobody was getting away. But there was a small chase from BMC with Sanchez setting the pace.
The final climb uphill started and Pozzovivo and Caruso had around 10 seconds lead. Suddenly Dan Martin surged from the group. It wasn’t a fierce attack, more a sustained effort and you could see the gap increase. He passed Pozzovivo and had Caruso’s slipstream going into the famous last turn when suddenly he slid out and crashed hard. Kindly Martin slid out of the way to let Simon Gerrans open up his sprint, holding off Valverde and Michał Kwiatkowski, with the Pole having had to go wide around Martin to avoid crashing.
If the one hundredth edition of this race was a celebration of the past it probably left many viewers yearning for the golden age. Was there ever an era of endless attacks? Probably not but this year’s edition was notable for its caution, for 240km it was like watching the insurance clerk world championships. Not a single big name rider attacked before the 20km to go point, until then the likes of Pierre Rolland, Warren Barguil, Domenico Pozzovivo and Julián Arredondo had tried a few moves but nothing.
If you’d missed the race only to see the results the podium was predictable, but it was a cagey and defensive race to watch. Gerrans, despite his hi-viz Aussie champion’s kit was hardly visible during the race although team mates Pieter Weening and Simon Clarke were men at work. Gerrans’s invisibility isn’t a criticism, it’s a compliment. This is how “The Sniper” rides and exactly what was predicted in the preview, he’s got one bullet and he didn’t miss – not for him the energy-wasting mania of Pierre Rolland. Valverde’s been in top form all week and Kwiatkowski’s value is rising almost every day, still 23 but standing on the podium of a monument.
Note the impressive performances of Arredondo and Pozzovivo. The Colombian was riding this event for the first time while the latter was all over the race despite having just finished the gruelling Giro del Trentino, this bodes well for the Giro.
Could Martin have won?
This time last year he had a panda chasing him, now he got what the French call un coup de bambou. Dan Martin had the jump on Caruso and a slender lead on Gerrans et al so maybe. Given Caruso managed to hold on to fourth place Martin can legitimately imagine a podium place was there. But that’s speculation and he’ll have to deal with the fact that he rode into the final corner and saw only one slowing rider between him and the finish line. That’ll be hard to digest but the upcoming Giro offers an excellent way to take out any frustration.
Last finish in Ans?
The finish isn’t the most glorious place but the climb up to Ans has provided suspense over the years. I gather it’s the last time the race will visit. A flatter finish in downtown Liège is being planned for 2015.
The classics are done. It was a mixed collection, often the suspense came late in the races. Now for the stage races with the Giro less than two weeks away and the Tour de Romandie as an appetiser.
1 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica Greenedge 6:37:43
2 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team
3 Michał Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
4 Giampaolo Caruso (Ita) Team Katusha
5 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale 0:00:03
6 Tom Jelte Slagter (Ned) Garmin Sharp
7 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo
8 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team
9 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Team Katusha 0:00:05
10 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:00:06