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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Some thoughts from Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege:
1. Maxim Iglinskiy capped a terrific week for Astana, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege after overtaking a fading Vincenzo Nibali with a little more than one kilometer left to race. While certainly an outsider, Iglinskiy’s win wasn’t a total shock. In fact, in looking over the Kazakh’s resume, he appears to be a poor man’s Philippe Gilbert. Consistent spring contenders, (Iglinskiy is better than you might think) both riders have won the Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They also both won stages at the Dauphiné earlier in their careers. Of course, Gilbert’s resume is much longer and contains many more major victories, but considering Iglinsky came millions of Euros cheaper than his Belgian counterpart, Astana is doubtlessly happy with the return on its investment.
2. Iglinskiy’s win underscored a terrific team effort from Astana. Well-represented all day (their jerseys are hard to miss), the team placed two riders in the first group chasing Nibali. Enrico Gasparotto’s third-place finish put an exclamation mark on a successful day for the squad while confirming that his win in last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race was no fluke. The squad has now won two of the last three editions of Liege. (I wonder if Alexandre Vinokourov had some pre-race advice for his teammates.)
3. As for Nibali, his ride yesterday bookended his performance at Milan-San Remo, the season’s first Monument. In both races, the Liquigas rider initiated the final selection, but succumbed to a rider that few had predicted to play a dominant role in the event’s outcome. It’s been a while since we’ve had a grand tour champion prove himself to be a legitimate contender in the spring classics—let’s hope Nibali returns next year ready to contend again. Now the Italian must decide whether or not to compete in his home grand tour. While the Giro is a tempting option, he’s better suited for this year’s Tour de France.
4. Speaking of this year’s Tour de France, RadioShack’s Schleck brothers played little role in Sunday’s race. Perhaps they were tired from their efforts to have Kim Anderson reinstated in the squad’s management team for July’s Tour de France. A win Sunday would have spoken a lot louder if you ask me.
5. Back to the race: Twitter was buzzing Sunday with people complaining of boredom during the race’s final hour. At first, I felt compelled to defend the riders. The weather was horrible and the course was difficult—one must remember that these men are indeed human. But in hindsight, it seems to me that several teams with top contenders could and should have done more to make the race difficult, thereby eliminating “outsiders” like Iglinsky before they had a chance to play a role in the finale.
For example, Gilbert’s BMC squad was clearly focused on controlling the race in preparation for what it hoped would be a decisive attack by Gilbert (or someone else). Unfortunately, this kept too many riders and teams in contention after La Redoute. Without a major selection at this point in the race, there were too many men left to settle things over the remaining 30 kilometers.
7. The same can be said of Katusha. With Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno they had a reason and the manpower to make the race more selective sooner—but they chose to sit-on. Some might say that Oscar Freire’s surprising resiliency gave the team an extra card to play should the race have stayed together all the way to Liege. (But that was an unlikely result—Freire’s performance was more a product of controlled racing than anything else.)
BMC can at least say they were racing to protect the chances of the defending chapion—they technically didn’t have to make the race (although that’s a slippery slope). Katusha made a mistake by basing this year’s tactics on last year’s favorite (Gilbert). Sometimes bringing the race to your competition is more effective than waiting for it to come to you.
8. Speaking of Gilbert, this spring was a minor catastrophe for the Belgian Champion. Last week I said that a win yesterday would have appeased his fans and softened his critics. Now it appears only a world championship will do the trick. Gilbert’s performance illustrates the importance of good health and good luck, while also reminding us that winning brings even loftier expectations the next time around. Hopefully Gilbert—who’s only 29, by the way—learned some valuable lessons from his experiences over the past two months. Look for him to be at his best once again next spring.
9. And if Gilbert didn’t already miss Jelle Vanendert, he certainly does now. I still can’t believe he didn’t make more of an effort to bring him along to BMC. That said, Tejay Van Garderen rode one heck of a race yesterday on behalf of Gilbert. The American now heads to Romandie before taking another crack at winning the Tour of California.
10. What a spring for Specialized and SRAM, huh?
That’s it for me—what’s on your mind?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here are some thoughts following Sunday’s 47th edition of the Amstel Gold Race:
1. Well, Italy finally won a spring classic after what seemed to be a pretty long drought—it just wasn’t the rider or the classic many expected. That said, savvy fans weren’t surprised to see Gasparotto taking the victory Sunday. A rider who has proven able to survive tough races and then win group sprints, the former Italian National Champion finished third last year after winning a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico. His Astana team rode a fantastic race, protecting the Italian with multiple teammates until the final trip up the Cauberg. Gasparotto delivered, timing his sprint perfectly and failing to be overwhelmed by Philippe Gilbert’s initial surge. And while Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege might be a bit too hilly for him, the question now remains whether Gasparotto’s Amstel performance makes him a candidate to be Italy’s captain for Worlds—a race that will be held on a similar course (with a nearly identical finish) later this season.
2. Speaking of Gilbert, he appears to have found some form at just the right time. While he’s clearly not at the level he was at this point last year (his unsuccessful attack Sunday was essentially the same acceleration he made to win the last two editions of the race), he will be a contender at both Fleche and Liege. And while repeating last year’s historic quadruple is out of the question, a win in Liege Sunday would certainly erase any bad taste from his mediocre (by Gilbert’s standards) start to the season.
3. But while Gilbert’s resurgence is good news for BMC, the team also lost Cadel Evans early Sunday as the Australian continues to struggle with a sinus infection. That’s a blow to Gilbert’s chances as Evans would have been a valuable card to play Wednesday and Sunday. Greg Van Avermaet rode a fantastic race on Gilbert’s behalf yesterday, but an in-form Evans might have tipped the scales in BMC’s favor.
4. Speaking of Van Avermaet, I’m not sure of his contract status, but one has to think he’ll receive some pretty nice offers once it expires. How long can this talented—and still relatively young (26)—rider be expected to sacrifice his own chances on behalf of others?
5. Anyone who underestimated just how much of a role Jelle Vanendert played in Gilbert’s success last year needs to watch yesterday’s sprint one more time. The Belgian will do his best to salvage Lotto-Belisol’s spring with a win later this week.
6. It bothers me when good riders make foolish attacks—and I’m not talking about Katusha’s Oscar Freire. His move made sense and it almost stuck. But I am talking about Omega Pharma – Quick-Step’s Niki Terpstra. Terpstra’s been one of the spring’s most consistent riders. He certainly could have secured his third consecutive top-10 finish in a major classic had he not taken it upon himself to try and bridge to Freire with less than 10 kilometers remaining in Sunday’s race. Some might say he was setting-up Dries Devenyns for the sprint—I’m not so certain.
7. Hats-off to Garmin-Barracuda’s Alex Howes who after finishing sixth in Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl spent 200 kilometers off the front Sunday. Let’s see what the 24-year-old can do in Fleche and Liege!
8. If you’re going to spend two weeks preparing for a race, Matti Breschel, you might as well finish it. Rabobank continues to be cursed in its home event. It’s been 11 years since Erik Dekker took the last win for the host nation and team. The irony of Oscar Freire (who left Rabobank this past off-season) almost taking the win Sunday had many pundits smirking at their computer screens.
That’s it for me—what’s on your mind following Sunday’s big event?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
This week Specialized Bicycles announced that they had signed Alberto Contador to a personal sponsorship contract for their bicycles. Contador in turn announced that he had come to an agreement with Astana to serve out the final year of his contract.
Whew, that’s over, isn’t it?
No, not really.
First, Contador’s contract with Specialized is significant and merits a look. In the modern history of road racing, a move of this sort is highly unusual, if not outright historic. Greg LeMond and Eddy Merckx had enough power that in negotiating a team contract they could stipulate the team would ride their bicycles. This is, however, the first time in the modern era that a rider has signed a personal contract ahead of his team, thus virtually ensuring that his team will be strong-armed into riding the same bikes.
It’s a fascinating fresh take on the carrot-and-stick approach, at least for the bike industry. It also hints at the possibility that Astana are not easy to negotiate with or even to determine who to negotiate with. This move could conceivably be less expensive than sponsoring Astana outright, but it has an additional value to Specialized: It makes Contador less portable. Obviously, there’s no way Garmin-Slipstream would allow Contador to ride a Specialized bike if they were to sign him. Ditto for Caisse d’Epargne. By offering Contador the lion’s share of what would otherwise go to the team, Specialized does Astana a service in helping to keep Contador tied to the team. There’s an obvious value in that.
Interestingly, the Belgian newspaper Sporza.be reports that Patrick Lefevre spilled the beans. After an unusually cordial letter announcing the end of the relationship, Lefevre revealed that Specialized was hoping to use their sponsorship of Contador to help lure him to Quick Step. When Contador accepted the offer and then announced his decision to stay with Astana, Lefevre said he realized that he and Specialized “no longer shared the same vision.”
Cynically, one could say that Contador took the money and ran. The more generous view is that he didn’t ignore the script, but rather, the man who expressed concerns about having the very best in equipment to race on seized on an opportunity to race some on a brand he believed to be superior.
Contador isn’t a done deal for either Specialized or Astana, though. There’s this clause in his contract that Astana must maintain its ProTour license or he climbs in the escape pod. As I’ve reported before, one requirement of the ProTour council is that all ProTour teams must have a minimum complement of 25 riders.
It is November 20 and Astana has 20 riders and one—Haimar Zubledia—is still trying to leave.
The Astana Roster to date:
David De la Fuente
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International