Pierre Rolland was in a good mood at the start of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Asked by his EF Education First-Drapac team communications manager who was going to win the race, Rolland exclaimed ‘me!’ with a smile.
Team directeur sportif Tom Southam verified that Rolland was indeed in fine shape. “He can be good here. This is a really good race for Pierre,” he told CyclingTips, while also naming others on the team as tips.
In the end, though, it was a different pink-jerseyed rider on the podium. Michael Woods had an astonishing race, riding with all the big guns and then jumping clear with Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) inside the final three kilometres.
Bardet is a rider who has finished second and third overall in the Tour de France. To see Woods pulling with him in the finale showed how much progress the former middle-distance runner has made. The duo overhauled Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal) on the final climb, the Cote de Ans, and then sprinted for second place, 37 seconds behind the solo winner Bob Jungels.
Woods had more speed than his rival and grabbed the race’s runner-up slot. It was a stunning ride in what is arguably the hardest one-day race for climbers. It was also the best showing of his career.
“This is a huge confidence boost,” Woods told CyclingTips at the finish. “I came into the season expecting to get results like this, and then I just fell apart a bit. I had some illness in Abu Dhabi and it just carried over and really affected my fitness and also my confidence.
“Every race I was doing, I just didn’t feel great. It wasn’t very positive. But today was the day when I finally felt like a bike racer again.
“I felt good, I just felt lighter, I felt happier. I felt happy to be where I was.”
Woods has had a short and complicated history with the race. He first rode it two years ago and crashed heavily, fracturing his hand. He then returned in 2017 and performed much better.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he told RAI. “I came ninth in it and it showed I can really contend at the highest level. And today I think I proved that again.”
‘All riders like history’
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is more than just a prestigious one-day race. It’s the oldest of all the Classics, is one of five Monuments and, in terms of climbing, is regarded as probably the hardest single-day event on the calendar. Over the course of 258 kilometres, the rider will clock up 4,500 metres of climbing.
It is continuously up and down and, because it’s not a Grand Tour stage where energy reserves are needed for the following day, is raced absolutely flat out.
Rolland explained why so many Grand Tour contenders show up. “It is a race for climbers,” he told CyclingTips prior to the start. “You don’t have many one day races for climbers. You have maybe only this one and Lombardy, and Lombardy is very late in the season.
“And it is also one monument with a lot of history. All riders like history and want to mark their name on this race.”
Southam said that Liège shows very clearly how people are going. This too explains in part why the general classification riders targeting the Giro or the Tour turn up. They can get an insight into their form, and also that of their rivals.
“In a race as hard as this – you can’t really hide, can you?,” he said before the drop of the flag. “Like, we will see how Dumoulin does today. Obviously he is here riding for Matthews, but you are going to see if he is good. If he is good, it is going to be noticeable. [Geraint] Thomas is here as well. Those guys are here to race. You will see how good they are.”
He was also keen to see how his own riders would go. For Rigoberto Uran, second in last year’s Tour de France, the race would be a test [Uran ultimately finished 54th]. Ditto for Rolland [51st]. And, of course, for Woods.
“Mike was ninth last year,” Southam noted. “And it was the first time he had done the final properly of a 270 kilometre race. He was away at Roche-aux-Faucons. He just got caught on Saint Nicolas. Those guys are all here to race – it should be good.”
Hours later, Woods was indeed battling away at the head of the favourites group. The Canadian was one of those who tracked Sergio Henao (Sky) when the Colombian surged on the Roche-aux-Faucons. Jungels then made his move, and wouldn’t be seen again until the finish.
“I was a bit to blame for that,” Woods admitted. “I was right on Jungels’ wheel, and I grabbed a gel when he went. It was a very strong race, a very courageous race from Jungels. You wouldn’t expect anything less from that guy. He is a really classy racer. Such a very impressive ride from him.”
Others tried to get clear and bridge up to the Luxembourg national champion, such as Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), the 2013 winner and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal). None were able to do so. Wellens’ teammate Jelle Vandendert (Lotto Soudal) made a big effort when he got clear on Saint-Nicolas, five kilometres from the finish, but he too was unable to get up to Jungels.
Woods was feeling good and when Bardet attacked inside the final three kilometres, he knew it was time to go.
“He made an excellent move,” he said. “I knew when he went that was the wheel to follow. I was able to get on his wheel and then we worked fairly well together all the way up the climb.
“I knew that if I had any advantage…I had really good legs for the sprint, so even if we were caught, I felt that I had a good shot. Unfortunately we weren’t able to bring back Jungels, but the sprint legs were good.”
Woods blasted home ahead of Bardet, and said that he had motivation beyond his own personal result.
“My wife, she had some tough news back home a few days ago,” he said, without giving any further details. “I really wanted to get a good result for her. I just finished the race, gave her a call and shared a big smile.
“I am just really happy to pull something off after a tough start to the season.”
When Woods crossed the line, he appeared not to be completely sure where to go. He turned left and rolled down a hill into the big parking lot where the team buses were located. Very soon afterwards he turned around and, with communications manager Beaudin tracking behind him, headed back towards the finish line.
Second in the race meant podium duties. After that, he would provide interviews in the race’s mixed zone area.
Inevitably, those questions looked at his short and medium-term future.
He confirmed that he is riding the Giro d’Italia, which will begin in Israel on May 4. “I am moving on to the Giro. Before this week, I had some doubts heading towards the race. But the form has finally come…I am starting to feel confident for that race.
“Right now, the goal is just to take it stage by stage. I had a good GC in the Vuelta last year [ninth], but I don’t want to put huge expectations on the GC yet. I just want to try to get a stage win and see how things go.”
Longer-term, he is sure he has further improvements in store. His athletic past meant that he took up cycling far later than most of his competitors. While this put him at a disadvantage in his twenties, due to his relative lack of race experience and of bike handling skills, it now means he has room for improvement at an age when most riders tend to stagnate. He’s 31, yet his trajectory continues to rise.
“I definitely feel I have more to give,” he told CyclingTips. “Physically, I am still having some opportunities to improve. But I think the big inroads I am going to make now are mentally. And also with peloton skills, which are improving quite a bit.”
Second in Liège will have a pronounced effect on his morale. It will make training easier and aid his motivation prior to the Giro. But longer term, it is important in that it points to what he could yet achieve in the future.
“Jonathan Vaughters, when he hired me, told me that I could win an Ardennes Classic,” he said. “I didn’t believe him when he first told me that, but now I am starting to believe.”
After Sunday, so too are many other people.