Team Sky have secured their second World Tour one-day race of the season with Wout Poels taking his biggest win of his career in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Poels surprised the field to take the win ahead of Michael Albasini of Orica GreenEDGE and Rui Costa of Lampre-Merida.
The fourth of five monument classics in the season, Liege-Bastogne-Liege took the field on a 248km hilly trek across Belgian roads that incorporated eleven climbs into the day’s racing including a brand new cobbled sector which was expected to make things interesting. The race began in terrible conditions and actually had to be shortened from 253km to 248km because of the atrocious elements that included snow in places. That meant that the first climb of the day – the Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne – was eliminated from the race.
A group of seven riders went clear of the field in the early stages courtesy of Alessandro De Marchi of BMC Racing, Jeremy Roy of FDJ, Pavel Brutt of Tinkoff, Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal, Paolo Tiralongo of Astana, Cesare Benedetti of Bora-Argon18 and Nicolas Edet of Cofidis. The seven riders combined well together and their reward for their troubles was a lead of 8.45mins and the chance to contest each of the categorised climbs of the day; with 500 euros on offer for the first rider to the top of each one.
Behind them Etixx-Quick Step were the first team to really take the race up behind them, with Julian Alaphilippe and former winner Daniel Martin both in attendance. As expected they were not alone, with Movistar also lending a good helping hand in a bid to line up Fleche Wallonne winner Alejandro Valverde for another Liege-Bastogne-Liege victory.
Over the course of the first 190km of racing the chase managed to peg back all but about 2 minutes of the break’s lead. But there would prove to be some strong resilience in the breakaway courtesy of Alessandro De Marchi and Nicolas Edet. De Marchi attacked from the breakaway and was joined by Edet with 48.5km of racing remaining. They managed to hold off the peloton until the descent of the third last climb of the day.
The action reached a climax with the final two climbs of the day, the Cote de Saint-Nicolas and the new addition to the race; the cobbled Cote de la Rue Naniot. It was interesting to note that up the Saint-Nicholas the favourites seemed to be keeping their powder dry, with a number of riders struggling including Simon Gerrans of Orica GreenEDGE and Daniel Martin of Etixx-Quick Step. Vincenzo Nibali struggled on the climb of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas.
The final domestiques instead seemed to be attacking for their leaders, but finally a serious move appeared to go clear on the treacherous roads; with Ilnur Zakkarin of Katusha and Diego Rosa of Astana going clear. Their days were short lived on the front though as they tried to keep upright on the extremely slippery descent. Zakkarin struggled in particular as they went around the bends, having to unclip his shoe at one point to stay on his machine. The remnants of the peloton finally caught them with 5km to go.
The last climb of the race arrived with 3.3km to go and it proved to be the launch pad for attacks with Julian Alaphilippe of Etixx-Quick Step attacking first with Ion Izagirre of Movistar going with him. Michael Albasini hit the front with 2.8km remaining, while Rui Costa was well positioned behind him. Wout Poels though had a little bit of a task to try and get in contact, having started the climb about halfway down in the leading group of riders.
Albasini had timed his attack well and he rode away, looking like he was very much the strong man in the finale. Valverde behind him didn’t have an answer, but Rui Costa did. The Portuguese champion joined him on the climb and as they crested the cobbled ascent and began their descent with 2.5km to go Samuel Sanchez of BMC Racing and Wout Poels of Team Sky managed to regain contact although they still had to err on the side of caution in places on the descent.
As they went inside of 2km to go the four leaders had a handful of seconds to play with and they didn’t let up as Sanchez and Albasini led the way up the final slope towards the finish. It looked like the chasers might be closing in, but the group had been severely whittled down; a factor that could hamper their chase effort. In the leading group though Wout Poels was content to wait, confident that he could count on his sprint finish. Albasini wasn’t though as they went under the 1km to go banner, he attacked again but couldn’t shake the three other riders. This time Poels did respond and bridged the gap, although as soon as they did he was back on the back of the group until he decided to try and attack. Again it came to nought and the race would be decided by a last ditch sprint.
With Ilnur Zakkarin closing behind them, the quartet couldn’t afford to play cat and mouse too much. With the last left hand turn done, Poels immediately hit for home, not making the same mistake as Daniel Martin who led into that bend only to crash the year before. It wasn’t a fast sprint, but the riders really were on their last legs. Once Poels accelerated Sanchez quickly realised that he had nothing left and he settled for fourth. But Albasini kept going, trying to get past Poels but to no avail. The Dutchman rode away to the win, his biggest in his career – and Holland’s first at Liege-Bastogne-Liege since Adrie Van Der Poel in 1988 – while Albasini took second ahead of Costa and Sanchez, with Zakarin completing the top five ahead of Frenchman Warren Barguil of GIANT-Alpecin, TInkoff’s Roman Kreuziger and Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez.
|3||Rui Alberto FARIA DA COSTA||POR||LAM||+0|
|4||Samuel SANCHEZ GONZALEZ||ESP||BMC||+4|
|8||Joaquin RODRIGUEZ OLIVER||ESP||KAT||+12|