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With a powerful sprint from a 4-rider group, Poels claimed Sky’s first monument victory by holding off Albasini, Costa and Sanchez in the final dash to the line after an epic and cold edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Photo: ANSA / DAL ZENNARO - PERI

LIÈGE - BASTOGNE - LIÈGE

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MICHAEL ALBASINI

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RUI ALBERTO FARIA DA COSTA

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TEAM SKY

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24.04.2016 @ 17:38 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Wout Poels (Sky) finally took the elusive first victory in a monument for Sky when he emerged as the fastest in a four-rider group that decided an epic and cold 102nd edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Launching his sprint in the final corner, he held off Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and Samuel Sanchez (BMC) to take the biggest victory of his career after the quartet had escaped on the new climb of Rue Naniot on a long day that had been marked by snow and a strong headwind.

 

When Sky entered the professional peloton in 2010, they made it clear that their first goal was to win the Tour de France with a British rider. They achieved that goal much earlier than expected with Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and since then they have become the dominant force in stage racing.

 

However, while they have been the strongest team in the multi-day events, they have failed to be equally competitive in the classics. They have had wins in some of the big cobbled races and been close to victory in Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix but the big monument victory has always eluded them.

 

A few weeks ago, Ian Stannard got close in Paris-Roubaix but he had to settle for third. That left just one opportunity for them in the 2016 spring season, today’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and with Michal Kwiatkowski clearly out of form and Sergio Henao suspended by the team, it looked unlikely that things would come together in La Doyenne.

 

However, the team had a secret card to play. At the start of the classics campaign, Wout Poels was expected to play a support role for Kwiatkowski in Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and act as lieutenant for Sergio Henao in Fleche Wallonne. He was secretly hoping to prove himself to be selected for the Olympics but his job was that of domestique.

 

When Henao was suspended on the eve of Fleche Wallonne, he suddenly got his own chance in the mid-week classic and he grabbed it with both hands by riding to fourth. That gave him a free role for Liege-Bastogne-Liege and he delivered on his promises by taking a magnificent win in the oldest classic on the calendar.

 

It became clear that Poels was the Sky leader with 10km to go when Kwiatkowski suddenly attacked from a rather big 45-rider group that had gathered on the front. On a day that was marked by cold and snow, a strong headwind had dampened the attacking spirit and so it was an unusually large group that headed towards the finale together. The inclusion of the new climb of Rue Naniot with 2.5km to go also gave the attackers an extra chance in the finale and this prompted them to play a bit of a waiting game.

 

Kwiatkowski was joined by Carlos Betancur (Movistar) and Andriy Grivko (Astana) to form a strong trio. However, they never got much of an advantage as Pieter Serry was chasing hard for Etixx-QuickStep and with 8km to go, they were back in the fold.

 

As they sped towards the bottom of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, Mikael Cherel hit the front for Ag2r and he led the group onto the ascent. A very aggressive Betancur launched a solo attack but Kwiatkowski played the loyal role of domestique and slowly reeled the Colombian in while the peloton splintered to pieces.

 

Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) tried a small move but again the headwind brought the group to a standstill. While Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was distanced, Diego Rosa (Astana) and Lars Petter Nordhaug (Sky) lined out on the front until Romain Bardet (Ag2r) tried to up the pace.

 

Rosa made a counterattack and only Zakarin could respond. The pair crested the summit with a small advantage but Daniel Moreno quickly gave chase for Movistar while former winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) was distanced.

 

Zakarin almost crashed on the wet descent and so Moreno managed to bring the pair back before they got to the bottom. A 25-rider group had gathered and it was Rosa who led them towards the bottom of Rue Naniot.

 

Manuele Mori took a turn for Lampre-Merida until Ion Izagirre took over for Movistar. However, it was Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) who attacked hard as soon as they hit the cobbled ascent.

 

Alphilippe was unable to make a difference and instead Michael Albasini increased the pace. Alaphilippe exploded from second position and this forced Rui Costa to make an effort to bridge across to the Swiss. The pair crested the summit with a small advantage over Poels and Samuel Sanchez (BMC) while Michael Valgren (Tinkoff) led the chase in the small peloton.

 

The junction was made on the descent and the front quartet extended their advantage over the peloton which was led by Valgren until Izagirre took over at the bottom of the final rise to Ans. When the Spaniard swung off, it became apparent that no one had anything left and as the group came to a standstill and Zakarin surged clear, it became apparent that the winner would be one of the first four riders.

 

Albasini tried to attack as they passed the flamme rouge and he got a small gap. Sanchez was clearly suffering but Poels managed to move into second position and drag the quartet back together. Albasini kept riding on the front and easily responded when Poels launched a small attack. Meanwhile, Zakarin was still in lone pursuit and Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) was also trying to bridge across.

 

Albasini led the front quartet into the final turn where the road flattened but it was Poels who launched his sprint from afar. The Dutchman dug deep but it seemed that it was all in vain when Albasini, usually the fastest, started to pass him. However, the Swiss ran out of power and Poels had enough to hold on to claim the biggest win of his career. Albasini and Costa had to settle for the minor places on the podium while a fatigued Sanchez took fourth four seconds later. Zakarin rounded out the top 5 while Barguil took sixth before Kreuziger won the sprint for seventh.

 

With Liege-Bastogne-Liege done and dusted, the classics season is over and instead the attention turns to the grand tours. The traditional warm-up race for the Giro, Tour de Romandie, is the next WorldTour race and will run from Tuesday to Sunday. After a busy period, there will be a break in the Belgian calendar, with the next major event being the Baloise Belgium Tour in late May.

 

A hilly course

The 102nd edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was held on a 253km course that brought the riders from Liege to Bastogne and back to the Liege suburb of Ans. Along the way, they had to tackle of total of 10 steep climbs in the Ardennes, with nine of them coming in the second half. As usual, the finale was expected to start at the Cote de la Redoute with 36.5km to go and then the riders still faced the Cote De La Roche-aux-Faucons and the Cote de Saint-Nicolas before they got to the new 600m cobbled climb of Rue Naniot just 2.5km from the finish. After a short descent, they headed up the famous small hill to the finish in Ans.

 

It was just as cold and rainy as feared when the riders gathered for the start in Liege. In fact, the temperature was 1 degree when the 200 riders rolled out for their long journey towards Bastogne. As expected, it was a fast start with many attacks. A big group first got clear early and then Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) tried a solo move. The combination of cold and high speed was apparently too much for Julien Loubet (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) who abandoned after just a few kilometres of racing.

 

Seven riders get clear

Despite the many attacks, the break was established relatively early as Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), Paolo Tiralongo (Astana), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Argon 18), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) and Jeremy Roy (FDJ) got clear. After 18km of racing, they already had a gap of a minute.

 

A lot of snow covered the climbs, and therefore the organizers made a decision to shorten the route by four kilometres between kilometer 45 and 75 before they returned to the original route. While the sports directors informed the riders of the change, the lead continued to grow to almost 5 minutes. Vegard Stake (IAM) had taken off in pursuit in what looked like a suicide mission and was 1.25 behind the leaders. At the same time, Katusha took control.

 

Stake Laengen makes the junction

The riders covered 42.5 km during the first hour during which the advantage increased to 6.30. It made it possible for the leader to relax a bit and therefore Stake Laengen suddenly approached from behind. After the gap had grown from 1.00 to 1.30, he made contact when 200km remained. At this point, the gap was 8.20.

 

Despite the big lead, Johnny Hoogerland (Roompot) and Preben Van Hecke (Topsport) tried to bridge across while Katusha slowly increased the pace with a little help from Dimension Data. They kept the gap at around 8.30 while Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) fought back to the peloton after a puncture. At the same time, the two chasers sat up.

 

Movistar and Etixx-QuickStep take control

Roy was the first man at the top of the day's first climb, Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne, where Movistar gave chase 8.55 behind the front. Etixx-QuickStep gave them a hand, and the two teams kept the gap between the 8- and 9-minute marks for some time.

 

The gap lead was 8.50 as the peloton reached Bastogne with 150km to go and while light snow began to fall, the journey back towards Liege started. Here they passed the second climb, Cote de Saint-Roch where Edet was the first rider to crest the summit while the peloton crossed the line 7.15 later, led by Imanol Erviti and Ruben Fernandez (Movistar).

 

The gap comes down

With 112 km to go, the lead dropped to 6.45. At the same time there was a small crash with Angel Vicioso (Katusha) and Alexey Vermeulen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Perrig Quéméneur (Direct Energie) abandoned.

 

Petr Vakoc (Etixx-QuickStep), Erviti and Fernandez upped the pace significantly and had reduced the gap to 5.50 with 100km to go. At this point, the fight for position for the Cote de Wanne really started and as a consequence the gap had dropped to 4.50 just 10km later. At the same time, Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) had to spend some crucial energy due to a mechanical.

 

Froome nearly hits the deck

The sun was shining and the roads were dry when the escapees hit the climb while Rory Sutherland and Erviti led Alejandro Valverde and the rest of the peloton onto the ascent four minutes later. Vakoc was dropped immediately while Lawson Craddock (Cannondale) had a very untimely puncture.

 

Tiralongo led the escapees over the summit while the peloton took it relatively easy and allowed the gap to grow to 4.20. While they tackled the descent, Chris Froome (Sky)nearly crashed and had to spend some energy to rejoin the peloton.

 

Brutt punctures

As the peloton hit the Cote de Haute-Levee, Movistar created a big selection as several riders, most notably Dario Cataldo (Astana) and Arthur Vichot (FDJ), were dropped. In the front group, Brutt punctured and had to chase hard to rejoin the group.

 

De Gendt was the first rider to crest the summit while the peloton crossed the line 4.30 later as snow had started to fall. Luckily, it was just a short shower and the riders were back on dry roads when they hit the Col du Rosier with 65km to go. At that point, the gap had dropped to 3.30 and the selection slowly continued as riders were constantly getting dropped.

 

Voeckler takes off

The attacking finally started halfway up the climb when the Direct Energie pair of Lilian Calmejane and Thomas Voeckler took off. Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) joined the move but as Andriy Grivko (Astana) tried to make a similar effort, he just brought the trio back. However, Voeckler insisted and took off in a solo move.

 

Edet led the front group to the top while Voeckler crested the summit 1.50 later. He had put 25 seconds into the peloton which was still led by Sutherland and Erviti.

 

The front group splits up

As they reached the Cote de Macquisard, Voeckler was 1 minute behind the leaders while the peloton followed at 1.50 and this was the signal for De Marchi to attack. Brutt was dropped immediately and it was only Edet, De Gendt and Tiralongo that could make it back to the BMC rider. However, the latter quickly fell behind.

 

While Edet led the trio over the top, the attacking started in the peloton when Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Soudal) took off. Björn Thurau (Wanty), Loic Vliegen (BMC) and Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff) joined the move and they got a small gap while Voeckler passed the fading Brutt. However, Sutherland and Erviti remained in control and brought the quartet back with 45km to go.

 

Edet attacks on La Redoute

Stake Laengen rejoined the leaders while Roy and Tiralongo joined forces 30 seconds behind the front quartet. Voeckler was 45 seconds behind while the peloton was at 1.55.

 

As the fight for position for Cote de la Redoute intensified, Brutt was brought back and the gap was down to 1.30 by the time, they hit the landmark climb. Edet attacked straight from the bottom and only De Marchi could slowly make it back to the Frenchman. Meanwhile, Roy dropped Tiralongo.

 

Movistar in control

Sutherland set an impressive pace in the peloton to catch Benedetti, Tiralongo, Voeckler and Roy before they got to the summit. De Gendt dropped Stake Laengen as he made a big surge near the top to try to get back to the leaders. At the top of the climb, he was just 10 seconds behind the leaders while Sutherland led the peloton to the top 45 seconds behind. They quickly brought Stake Laengen back on the descent

 

As they hit the small Cote de Sprimont with 33km to go, De Gendt rejoined Edet and De Marchi who were 40 seconds ahead of the peloton that was still led by Sutherland and six of his Movistar teammates. Andriy Grivko (Astana) launched an immediate attack from the peloton and while Christopher Juul (Orica-GreenEDGE) tried to bridge across, he got a gap. However, the Dane was closely marked by Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) and even though more riders tried to attack, only Grivko could get a gap.

 

Majka goes down

Grivko caught De Gendt who had again been dropped from the front group but the pair was reeled in with 30km to go. At this point, De Marchi and Edet were only 20 seconds ahead of the peloton that was still eld by Sutherland.

 

Sutherland disappeared from the front as the fight for position intensified and it was David de la Cruz who took control for Etixx-QuickStep. Meanwhile, Angel Vicioso (Katusha) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) crashed in the brutal fight for the top spots.

 

The break is caught

Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Soudal) took a turn and he brought the break back with 23km to go. Julien Vermote took a turn for Etixx-QuicStep until van der Sande again took over, leading the peloton onto the climb.

 

Pieter Serry went straight to the front for Etixx and with his captains Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin on his wheel, he split the field. He set the pace all the way to the top and with the strong headwind, no one even dared to attack.

 

Etixx-QuickStep take control

Serry and Laurens De Plus set the pace as they hit the false flat after the climb where Movistar played a surprise card by sending Carlos Betancur off in an attack. Enrico Battaglin (LottoNL-Jumbo) tried to join him but while he failed to make contact, the Colombian soloed clear.

 

It started to rain heavily as Serry and de la Cruz led the chase of Betancur. They slowly reeled him in with 15km to go and easily responded when Grivko made another move two kilometres later. Kwiatkowski was the next to move which signaled the start of the finale

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