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After 248km of cold, miserable conditions, Dutch rider Wout Poels took the biggest win of his career, and the first Monument for Team Sky, winning the 102nd edition of Liége-Bastogne-Liége.
Polls out-sprinted Swiss rider Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) and Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) from a four-man group; BMC Racing’s Samuel Sanchez ran out of legs as the sprint began, and finished four seconds down.
“It’s really nice, I’m really happy. I honestly can’t believe that I won today, so I’m really happy,” Poels told Belgian TV at the finish line. “It was a really hard day, really hard conditions. I didn’t feel super, but everybody was really tired.”
Brutal conditions for the sport’s oldest monument
Snow, extremely cold weather, and 10 significant “côtes” were on tap as the peloton congregated at Place Saint-Lambert in Liége. Though snow was falling, it generally wasn’t sticking to the road. Sponsor logos were hard to spot as riders wore the heaviest jackets avaialble.
The weather was such that the first rider to abandon, Frenchman Julien Loubet (Fortuneo Vital Concept) quit the race after only a few kilometres of racing.
An hour into the race, race owners Amaury Sports Organization made the decision to alter the route, shaving 5km off the length to circumvent the snowiest sections of the course.
Although similiar situations brought the cancellation of stages at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico last month, there was no implentation of the UCI’s new Extreme Weather Protocol.
Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) took the start, riding in support of Michal Kwiatkowski and Poels.
An hour into the race, a seven-rider breakaway went clear. Several major teams were well represented; in the move were Paolo Tiralongo (Astana), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing), Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), Jeremy Roy (FDJ), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), and Cesare Benedetti (Bora Argon 18).
Missing the move was the Movistar team of the defending champion Alejandro Valverde, as well as the Orica-GreenEdge of 2014 winner Simon Gerrans, and the Etixx-QuickStep team of 2013 winner Dan Martin and last year’s runner-up, Julian Alaphilippe.
IAM Cycling’s Vegard Stake Laengen bridged across the brekaway, making contact at kilometre 50 to make it an eight-man group that opened a maximum lead of nine minutes.
Due to the harsh weather, dozens of riders had abandoned the race by the midway point.
Between the Côte Wanne (84km from the finish) and Côte de la Haute-Levée, Froome went down in a crash, though it was not serious and he was able to continue.
With 62km remaining and the gap to the breakaway at 2:40, Lilian Calmejane and Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie) attacked from the peloton, drawing out Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge). Yates would not make contact, and Calmejane was unable to keep the pace, but Voeckler pushed on alone.
With 50km to go, Lotto-Soudal leader Tony Gallopin abandoned, due to a crash.
At 40km to go, four main climbs remained: Côte de La Redoute, Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons, Côte de Saint-Nicolas, and the new-to-the race Côte de la Rue Naniot.
By the time the race had reached La Redoute with 40km remaining, only Edet and De Marchi remained at the front of the race, their breakaway companions dropped, while Voeckler was caught by the main peloton, driven by Movistar.
De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) managed to catch up with De Marchi (BMC Racing) and Edet (Cofidis), making three at the front with a tenuous 35-second lead, with 32km and three main climbs remaining.
Behind, Andrei Grivko (Astana) attacked from the peloton, which was being led by Team Sky.
Grivko quickly caught up with De Gendt, who had again been dropped by Edet and De Marchi.
A crash in the peloton saw Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Lawson Craddock and Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale), and Angel Vicioso (Katusha) hit the deck; it was the Spaniard’s second crash of the day. Craddock and Slagter were forced to abandon.
All back together with three climbs remaining
With 23km remaining, Edet and De Marchi were reeled back, and after riding for 204km off the front, the race was back together with the climbs of La Roche-aux-Faucons, Saint-Nicolas, and the cobbled Rue Naniot remaining.
There were no major attacks on the La Roche-aux-Faucons as Etixx-QuickStep drove the pace to set up Martin and Alaphilippe.
At 18km remaining, about 50 riders remained in the bunch. Froome was seen suffering at the back of the pack as Colombian Carlos Betancur (Movistar) attacked, offering his teammates a bit of a reprieve at the front.
Betancur’s time at the front was short lived, however, as he was caught at 15km to go as the race reached the Côte de Saint-Nicolas.
Next to attack from the bunch was Grivko, which forced a reaction from Kwiatkowski.
Just 8km remained as the bunch hit the 8.6% average gradient slopes of the 1.2km long Saint-Nicolas. Betancur attacked at the bottom, though it was more to draw a reaction that to truly go clear.
Nibali was unable to hold the pace on Saint-Nicolas, and soon after he was dropped, his Astana teammate, Diego Rosa attacked, followed by Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha). Also off the back was 2014 winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).
At 5km to go, Rosa and Zakarin were caught by what was left of the main bunch, down to around 30 riders. It would all come down to the cobbled, 600-metre long Côte de la Rue Nanio, which averages 10.5% but maxes out at 14% gradient.
Alaphilippe was first to attack on the Rue Nanio, but it was a counterattack by Swiss rider Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) that shook things up. Rui Costa (Lampre) went with Albasini, followed Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing) and Wout Poels (Sky). The four riders held a tenuous five-second lead with 1500 metres left.
Albasini attacked inside the final kilometer, while Zakarin launched alone from the peloton.
Poels, who was spotted throwing his gloves away in the final kilometer, was next to attack from the four-man move, forcing Albasani to close it down.
“We went on the new cobbled climb so I like that one, they can keep that one,” Poels said. “We had a really nice gap. I looked at the others and they were also looking strong. I knew there was a long drag to the finish which after 250km is tough. I did a little dig, but not a strong one. I was a little afraid the bunch would come back, but we had enough of a
gap. I just went full gas in the last 250 metres to see what would happen, and nobody came any more. It was a really nice feeling.”
In the final sprint, Sanchez ran out of legs early. Poels timed his sprint perfecty, easily beating Albasini for the win; Costa took third, with Sanchez fourth and Zakarin fifth.
“[Poels] did a great sprint,” Albasini said. “After 250km, it’s freshness that counts more than a sprinter’s ability. [Poels] was already ahead of me in Flèche. He’s in great form. Right now I can’t be happy, but in two or three days I will think that I had a great race, and that I’m one of the best in the world.”
Costa, the 2013 world champion, was pragmatic about his third-place finish.
“On Saint-Nicolas everyone started attacking and it became very tough,” Costa said. “I felt I had good legs to be in the right place on the last climb. But I also realised Albasini was going really well and would be tough to beat. I tried to keep up, as I saw the group falling behind I felt I could go on the last climb, but Poels deserved it. It was a tough day with the rain, cold and snow, the toughest I can remember. I’ve always said Liège is one of my favourite classics, so I’m very happy to be on the podium.”
A stage winner at Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour of Basque Country, and more recently the Tour of Catalunya, the 28-year-old Poels took his biggest career victory, and Sky’s first Monument since it launched in 2010.
Poels became only the fifth Dutch rider to win Liége, and the first since Adrie van der Poel in 1988, just a few months after Poels was born.
Valverde, the pre-race favorite after winning Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, would not finish in the top 10, placing 15th. Alaphilippe also sputtered at the end, finishing 22nd.
“I want to thank the whole team,” Valverde. They were sensational all day, and it has more importance considering today’s conditions. Hailstorm at times, lots of snow, rain, temperatures below zero… it was really difficult. I ended the race with a strange feeling, yet still a good one because I’ve seen again that my legs feelt good leading up to the Giro d’Italia.”
POELS Wout POELS Wout Team Sky
ALBASINI Michael ALBASINI Michael Orica GreenEDGE
COSTA Rui COSTA Rui Lampre - Merida
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