After a comparatively dull start (and ‘middle’) to the Ardennes classics the series served up an outstanding finish with Dan Martin’s victory at Liege Bastogne Liege on Sunday. While none of the locations can be described as particularly scenic LBL takes the prize for the final kilometres of a race most like a criterium held around the back streets of Hackney.
Sunday’s race was Philippe Gilbert’s and indeed Belgium’s last chance to provide a winner in a 2013 spring classic. Gilbert had not been able to get into the right position as the week’s previous races had reached their climax and these disappointments coupled with Tom Boonen’s injury afflicted season to date inevitably piled on the expectation and pressure for the world champ. The field was pretty stellar. Liege offers as much climbing over its entire length as a typical grand tour mountain stage and GC riders were well represented with Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador taking the start.
The shake up for the final stages inevitably arrived as the peloton hit La Redoute. For the first time in this years classics Sky actually looked well placed as the climb approached with Froome looking well supported by Richie Porte, David Lopez and Vasil Kireyenka at the front. The local TV feed wasn’t suffering the same technical issues that had spoilt Amstel and Fleche previously. However, the combination of an impromptu car park formed by spectators on the nearby motorway and other ‘interesting’ scenes alongside the race itself meant that the events that led to Lopez breaking away were missed. Never likely to be a winner from this distance Lopez was left seeking directions from the team car when it became apparent that Sky had pretty much blown up as team before the summit.
As Sky’s chances of an impact in this years classics evaporated we were treated to the impressive sight of an attack by Ryder Hesjedal. He had shown his form ahead of defending his Giro title at last Sunday’s Amstel but this time there Hesjedal wasn’t trying to chase down a breakaway, he was going for the win. Hesjedal’s break came on a section of the race introduced only because of road works that prevented the use of one of the regular climbs. He time trialed away from the field building up a 20+ second advantage at one point.
As Hesjedal attempted to hold the gap up the final key climb we were treated to the second most bizarre piece of crowd participation of the day as a post punk kilt wearing Belgian paced him up the hill. In the background the chasers including Gilbert approached. Fleche Wallone nearly man Carlos Betancur was the first to bridge the gap but he couldn’t press home the attack. Hesjedal caught, was holding his place and leading the group including team mate Dan Martin into the final few k’s.
Tactically, Valverde looked like he would suck anyone’s wheel who let him but with the prospect of a bunch sprint and the second group of Gilbert fast approaching it was Rodriguez who attacked. If the climb had been steeper it was possible to imagine a Rodriguez win at this point but there was a perceptible slow down from Purito followed seconds later by the sight of a rider in blue heading across the gap. As the camera angle shifted behind and above it was clear that the rider in blue, Dan Martin was catching up. As he came alongside there was the briefest interlude while Martin matched Rodriguez pedal stroke and then he went for it. During these shots the kilt wearing punk was outdone by a spectator dressed as a Panda managing to keep pace with the riders sprinting uphill.
Martin better placed than a television viewer to know that he faced no threat from Rodriguez celebrated long before the line. First to congratulate was Hesjedal and as team efforts go it was powerful stuff. Martin’s victory and the comparison that can be made between at least one of the weeks winners, if not team set ups, made this a result that can be believed in. Martin probably wasn’t in many people’s top 10 of likely winners of Liege Bastogne Liege but he is only the second Irishman (although his brummie accent is stronger) to win a monument and adds to his already impressive tally from the Vuelta a Catalunya this year.
As the classics draw to a close and we look forward to the start of the grand tours the losers of the week at least look like Philippe Gilbert and BMC. Gilbert’s finish at Liege was the same as his finishes in Amstel and Fleche. He has been consistent across all three races but while a repeat of 2011 was probably beyond him Gilbert and his team will no doubt feel that they should have delivered more. Movistar were well represented this week as well and questions could be asked of Valverde tactically after the team had got him into a good position. Sky’s classics performance has been abject, probably made worse by their much publicised ‘focus’ on the monuments this year. It will be interesting to see if they push to sign Fabian Cancellara in the off season and work for someone who knows how to win rather than someone who has the potential to do so.
Garmin now have their second monument victory to add 2010’s win at Paris Roubaix. It will be interesting to see how Dan Martin evolves within the team now. Already confirmed as not part of the teams plans for the Giro title defence he is surely worth a punt for this years Tour as a rider to make a breakaway across the mountain stages. Only time will tell. At 26 he has plenty of racing in him.
Dan Martin was overwhelmed with his victory at Liege Bastogne Liege. The kilt wearing punk and panda were unavailable for comment.
Enjoy the key action from Liege Bastogne Liege below