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by Shane Stokes
April 18, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Enrico Gasparotto wound the clock back four years at the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, racing to a superb second career win in the race. The Wanty – Groupe Gobert rider attacked on the final climb, went past breakaway rider Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and pushed on over the summit.
He was joined by Tinkoff’s Michael Valgren, who did the majority of the work in the flat final two kilometres to fend off the chase behind.
As a result he had nothing left to give when Gasparotto opened up his sprint. The 34 year old powered ahead and crossed the line pointing at the sky, thinking of his team-mate Antoine Demoitié.
The Belgian rider was killed after being struck by a motorbike in last month’s Gent-Wevelgem.
Behind, the big guns had been too conservative on the last climb and continued to watch each other after the top. Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Soudal) tried to get clear but couldn’t break the elastic. He continued to drive at the front before others took over, but it was too little, too late.
Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CSF) won the sprint for third, beating Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
With three Pro Continental teams in the first five, the outcome was unexpected. However Gasparotto and Valgren were rewarded for their aggression, taking the first two places on the podium and forcing the bigger guns to re-examine their tactics.
As expected, Gasparotto dedicated his win to his fallen team-mate. “This victory is for Antoine Demoitié,” he said. “Yesterday, Antoine’s wife came to our hotel to meet us. It was hugely emotional, one of the most [moving] of my life.”
As a result he will remember his second Amstel Gold Race victory for a very, very long time.
Colbrelli will also remember the race, but more so with mixed feelings.
“Just after the finish I was disappointed,” he said. “I felt the regret, [that] I have lost a big chance. I won the sprint only few meters after the first two riders, and I was feeling really good.
“Then, looking at the performance, thinking how prestigious the third place in this race is, I forgot the disappointment and just enjoyed the podium. Many great riders finished the race behind me, this is the proof I did a great race.”
Sandwiched between the two of them was Valgren. He said that he accepted the result, despite perhaps getting things tactically wrong in the final kilometre.
“I’m really happy. I’d have liked to have won the race – that’s what I was aiming for at the start, but the way it turned out…when it’s so close you’d like to win. But I am really happy.”
Following the northern Classics, the Amstel Gold Race had a very different feel to it. Almost 260 kilometres in length, it would feature no less than 34 climbs and would suit the more explosive riders in the bunch.
Early on, Trek Factory Racing rider Fabio Feline crashed out of the race with a suspected broken nose. Lotto Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot also excited the event, although illness was the reason for his departure.
Feline’s team later gave clarification of the injury, saying that he had crashed and hit the ground directly with his face.
“He sustained a broken nose and cuts to his face and the radiologists also found a fracture at the base of the skull,” said team physician Jens Hinder. “He needs further examination to determine if it is stable or unstable and this will determine what treatment is required for recovery. It is too early to know until he undergoes further tests.”
A number of attempts were made to try to get away but nothing of any significance formed until 35 kilometres in. A total of 11 riders were there, namely Alex Howes (Cannondale), Laurent Didier (Trek-Segafredo), Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r La Mondiale), Laurens De Vreese (Astana), Matteo Bono (Lampre – Merida), Kevin Reza (FDJ), Larry Warbasse (IAM), Fabien Grellier (Direct Energy), Giacomo Berlato (Nippo – Vini Fantini), Tom Devriendt (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Josef Cerny (CCC).
These were over four minutes clear with 200 kilometres to go and continued to work hard. By the base of the first ascent of the Cauberg, they had stretched their lead to over five minutes, although the climb would see them concede 30 seconds of that advantage.
Defending champion Michael Kwiatkowski was being helped by his Sky team, who drove at the front for an extended period and further hewed the break’s advantage down to four minutes with 130 kilometres left.
The British team was subsequently joined by Orica-GreenEdge and Ag2r La Mondiale and the collaboration reduced the lead to a shade over three minutes.
Heading onto the Cauberg for the second time, Howes set the pace and helped increase the advantage slightly. However the climb was scaled more quickly by the peloton and it was just three minutes and 12 seconds back at the top.
The weather became more ominous and a heavy rain started to fall. The tricky conditions caught out former Il Lombardia winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) who ended up on the deck. He was helped back to the bunch by his team, but the knock did little to help his chances.
Heading into the final 65 kilometres four riders clipped away from the bunch, with the move being sparked off by Tosh Van der Sande (Lotto Soudal). The others present were Bjorn Thurau (Wanty – Groupe Gobert), Gianni Meersman (Etixx – QuickStep) and Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo).
Together they worked hard and reduced the gap to one and a half minutes inside the final 50 kilometres. Behind, Andriy Grivko (Astana) was chasing hard but was unable to close up to the four ahead of him.
The next climb of the Gulpenerberg took a toll on the break, with Didier and Reza coming under pressure and sliding out the back. In contrast, Howes was feeling strong and drove the break up the Kruisberg. His efforts helped ensure the peloton was still over two minutes back heading into the final 40 kilometres but, with some tough terrain ahead, it was vital that those out front continued to pull through.
The American’s acceleration helped reduce the number of those at the head of affairs. Behind things were starting to heat up and Orica-GreenEdge’s Michael Albasini clipped away of the bunch. Sky hauled him back prior to the Fromberg climb, where Orica-GreenEdge took over the pacesetting and drove the pace over the top.
Once onto the Keutenberg climb, the peloton bridged up to the four-man chase group. The increase in pace sent Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) out the back, with former race winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) also weakening and going south.
Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and Kwiatkowski were other surprises, with these also conceding their place in the bunch.
“It was unfortunate that Michal got dropped,” Team Sky directeur sportif Kurt-Asle Arvesen would later say. “He just didn’t have good legs today, it’s as simple as that.”
He added that Kwiatkowski would miss Flèche Wallonne, as had previously been planned, heading to Spain instead prior to returning for Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) had no such concerns and was feeling good. He tried to get clear, but wasn’t given much rope. The Luxembourg rider was hauled back and under Orica-GreenEdge’s driving, the junction with the leaders was finally made with 14 kilometres remaining.
Soon after Mat Hayman hit the front and ramped up the pace, seeking to set up team-mates Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans.
The Australian had surprised to win Paris-Roubaix last Sunday, and his prolonged effort showed that he still had the legs which carried him to that victory.
Once he started to fade, team-mate Michael Albasini took over and chased hard to try to limit an attack by Tinkoff rider Roman Kreuziger.
With 7.5 kilometres left Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) jumped across to Kreuziger and went straight by, soloing ahead. He hammered clear and opened a gap of 12 seconds, while behind a number of other riders tried, and failed, to get away.
Wellens continued to pad his advantage and stretched it out to 19 seconds with four kilometres left. The steep final climb made it crucial that he had a big buffer on the Cauberg, but Albasini’s chase meant that he had just 12 seconds on those final slopes.
Sensing things were slipping away from him, Wellens dug deep. The big guns watched each other behind, with nobody appearing willing to make the first move. Vakoc (Etixx-QuickStep) accelerated slightly, but it was former race winner Enrico Gasparatto (Wanty) who had the courage to really thrown down the gauntlet and who bridged to Wellens.
Gasparatto pushed on and was joined by Valgren 1.9 kilometres from the end. Behind, the main favourites were continuing to watch each other, with nobody willing to really go for it. Vanendert (Lotto Soudal) tried to get away but was unable to snap the elastic. His acceleration brought the peloton closer to the leaders, and he continued to drive at the front.
Valgren drove the pace into the final 700 metres. Gasparatto stuck to his wheel, declining to come through. He was playing a game of chess with his rival and finally kicked with 200 metres to go, blasting ahead to hit the line first.
The scenes after the finish were emotional. The team lost a rider last month when Antoine Demoitié was hit by a motorbike in Gent Wevelgem and killed; today’s success put a smile back on the team’s faces.