Maxim Iglinskiy’s impressive, yet shocking victory at the 98
th Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday ended a spring classics season that lived up to current expectations: predictably unpredictable.
Last year, the wins by Matt Goss (at Milan-San Remo), Nick Nuyens (Tour of Flanders) and Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix) came out of left field, while not even Philippe Gilbert believed he could do the Amstel Gold Race-Flèche Wallonne-Liège triple. This year, the upset winners were Simon Gerrans (San Remo), Enrico Gasparotto (Amstel) and Iglinskiy, while Tom Boonen’s sweep through the cobbled classics was just as unexpected as Gilbert’s hat trick in 2011.
Most of the factors that led to the season’s upset results were present at this past weekend’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège—which is arguably the toughest of all the spring classics and usually the most predictable. Not this time. To find out who are the biggest favorites to win La Doyenne (“the Oldest One”) fans generally turn to Europe’s most respected sports newspaper, L’Équipe.
For Sunday’s race, the French publication’s list began with its hottest picks: 5 stars for defending champion Gilbert and Flèche Wallonne winner Joaquim Rodriguez; 4 stars for Olympic road champ Samuel Sanchez; 3 stars for two-time Liège winner Alejandro Valverde, three-time podium finisher Fränk Schleck and Gilbert’s former lieutenant Jelle Vanendert; two stars for Flèche Brabançonne winner Thomas Voeckler, San Remo winner Gerrans and fresh-from-the-Giro del Trentino Damiano Cunego; and, just one star for Amstel winner Enrico Gasparotto and on-form Vincenzo Nibali.
If Europe’s supposedly best-informed journalists selected 11 favorites and didn’t even name Iglinskiy as an outsider then who would have picked the Kazakh? Furthermore, their long shots, Nibali and Gasparotto, ended up in second and third places. What no one—except perhaps the wily Astana Proteam manager Giuseppe Martinelli—really considered was that (1) the Kazakh-financed squad had been racing well all week, and (2) Iglinskiy had been released from the cannon-fodder role he usually plays because veteran team captain and two-time Liège winner Alexander Vinokourov was searching for better form at the Tour of Turkey.
Sunday morning, Vinokourov, 38, called Iglinskiy, 31, at his Liège hotel, telling him it was a race he could win and advising him to be patient. “He told me to stay cool and do my best,” Iglinskiy said at his post-race press conference.
Schlecks suffer in the cold
With heavy rain and hail showers, and strong winds blowing from the southwest, the outward passage from Liège to the border town of Bastogne followed the organizers’ slowest schedule of 38 kph. None of the favored teams bothered to put a rider in the early breakaway, and an indication of how the race would play out only came when Rodriguez’s Katusha teammates increased the tempo to cut the break’s lead from 12 minutes to two by the time the first serious climbs came with 100 of the 257.5km race still to go.
On the ultra-steep Stockeu climb (where Eddy Merckx would usually start the attacks that earned him a record five wins at Liège), it looked like Fränk Schleck was going to have a good day. His brother Andy was sitting on the wheels of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek teammates Chris Horner and Jan Bakelants, making the pace high enough to shed the peloton’s weaker elements, while Maxime Montfort, who comes from this part of Belgium, was taking care of the elder Schleck.
Looks clearly deceived on this occasion, because Horner and the Schleck brothers were all suffering from the cold, wet conditions and faded from view on the windswept plateau before descending to the Ourthe Valley and the crucial climb of La Redoute. Describing the RadioShack team’s effort, Montfort said, “The key point in the race was 10km before La Redoute [when] you have to fight to be in good position. But right then it was raining and so cold it was almost snowing. We were thinking more about getting our rain jackets instead of moving up.”
Team manager Johan Bruyneel confirmed his riders’ physical (and mental) state: “[When] Fränk came back to the car [for his jacket], he was shaking, quite frozen….” As for Horner, he confirmed that he and his team leader were badly placed at that point. “I started at the back on La Redoute [and] if you start at the back on an important climb, you aren’t going to make anything happen. Today, I got too cold, so things went bad there,” Horner said on his team Web site. “It’s difficult to race when you weigh 63 kilos (139 pounds) and it’s this cold.”
With his numb hands unable to use the brake levers safely, Horner abandoned the race, along with his hard-man teammate Jens Voigt and their colleagues Joost Posthuma and Laurent Didier. At the end of the day, Andy Schleck and Bakelants would finish in a 25-man group 5:39 back, while brother Fränk was the best of the team, placing 23rd in a 20-man group with Montfort, 2:11 down.
BMC raced with honor
When the RadioShack team’s challenge disappeared, Gilbert’s BMC Racing squad fulfilled its responsibilities for the race favorite. American workhorse Brook Bookwalter pulled the peloton through the frigid weather (as low as the high-30s Fahrenheit) over the wearing climbs of the Rosier, Maquisard and Mont-Theux before his compatriot Tejay Van Garderen took over. They were riding at a high level and high pace to answer a danger posed by Europcar’s Pierre Rolland and Movistar’s Vasil Kiryienka, both strong climbers, who counterattacked over the Haute-Levée climb, with 85km to go, and quickly caught the morning’s six-man break.
“It was necessary to make the race harder to favor Thomas [Voeckler],” Rolland said, referring to his team leader. Rolland — who won the 2011 Tour de France stage at L’Alpe d’Huez — traveled to the race straight from Italy’s Trentino stage race, where he placed 10th on last Friday’s Pordoi mountaintop finish. The young Frenchman’s efforts on the climbs split the lead group apart and after La Redoute, only Kiryienka, one of Valverde’s teammates, and the Italian Dario Cataldo of Omega-Quick Step, could match him.
Ironically, while Rolland and Kiryienka were making the race hard over La Redoute, 34.5km from the finish, their team leaders were struggling on the climb’s lower slopes. First, Voeckler hit the deck: “It was raining and perhaps I skidded on a manhole cover,” he said. His teammate Cyril Gautier waited for his leader but Voeckler had to go it alone up the Redoute’s double-digit-percentage grades. It was here that Valverde, also suffering from the cold, dropped his chain and changed bikes with teammate Angel Madrazo.
Voeckler made a huge effort to make it back to the small group of leaders, still being led by Van Garderen, but Valverde would not. As for another Spanish favorite, Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, his day started badly when his best teammate Igor Anton crashed in the streets of Liège and broke his collarbone. Things got worse when Sanchez’s rear derailleur broke at the foot of the Stockeu “wall” and he had to chase for a long time when the race was heating up over the Haute-Levée and Rosier climbs. Showing his resilience (and his downhill skills on the mostly slick descents), Sanchez came through to take an eventual seventh place.
As has happened in each of the five times it has been included in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Roche aux Faucons climb saw the decisive moments of the race. In front, Rolland dropped his last companions, while Van Garderen finally pulled over after his marathon effort at the front to let teammate Santambrogio keep setting the pace for Gilbert. The American team’s impressive show left Gilbert in the place he needed to be, but when you are not on your very best form it’s impossible to fake it in a race as long and tough as this one—especially in conditions that were cold and wet one moment, and still cold and windy when the sun came out.
So Gilbert was in the ideal position going up the Faucons climb, which starts on a wide residential street and ends on a narrow rural back road between tall trees. The Belgian champion was able to follow the first attacks by Nibali and Vanendert after they passed Rolland, but he was slow to take up the chase behind Nibali when the Italian accelerated after going over the top a couple of lengths clear. Gilbert got within 30 meters of the Liquigas rider on the downhill, but that was it. Nibali was flying clear with the wind at his back.
“I tried to follow Nibali but I put myself in the red and couldn’t recuperate,” Gilbert said. “From that point on, I knew it would be difficult for me.” Indeed, when the group split in two on the uncategorized climb 2km after the Roche aux Faucons, Gilbert was in the back half.
Ahead, the chase was taken up by the three teams still with two or three riders: Astana, Katusha and Europcar. As a result, the long downhill through Seraing (where the opening road stage of the Tour de France will finish on July 1) resulted in rapid, yet tactical racing, with Rodriguez and Iglinskiy emerging as Nibali’s only challengers.
Battle on Saint-Nicolas
Working together, the little Spanish climber and the solid Kazakh team rider were faster on the crosswind sections before reaching the vicious ascent of Saint-Nicolas—which starts with a 10-percent pitch up a narrow street through this working-class neighborhood and ends with a couple of steep turns before reaching a kilometer of flatter roads high above the city of Liège.
It was on this climb where the road was exposed to the crosswinds that the race was won and lost. Gilbert fell off the pace in the chase group. The cold and distance got to Rodriguez, who could only watch as Iglinskiy rode away from him up the hill, while Garmin-Barracuda’s Dan Martin climbed past the Katusha man with Rolland on his wheel (they’d both be caught on the run-in to the finish). And Nibali struggled, his body jerking with the effort as he sat in the saddle, unable to get more speed or power into his pedals.
Over the top, with 5.5km to go, Iglinskiy had closed from a 40-second to a 15-second deficit. And his catch of the leader within sight of the one-kilometer-to-go archway was inevitable. After Iglinskiy rode clear to a 21-second victory, Nibali was close to tears following his epic yet finally heartbreaking effort. “I don’t think I made any mistakes,” he told reporters. “I just lacked a little strength in my legs in the finale. There was lots of wind on Saint-Nicolas and I left most of my strength there.”
Over at the Astana team car, where they were celebrating the squad’s second upset win in eight days, with first Gasparotto and now Iglinskiy. Their directeur sportif Guido Bontempi said, “It’s a big surprise for us. We prepared the race from Gasparotto’s perspective, but we gave carte blanche to Iglinskiy, to react according to the circumstances. And that’s what he did….”
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