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Liège’16: Poels Apart!

Race Report: A cold and wet Liège-Bastogne-Liège came up with a surprise win that gave the Sky team their first Monument win. Wout Poels has been a top performer so far this season and now he has put the icing on the cake with victory in ‘La Doyenne’. Sky are now a Classics team!

Sky finally got their monument as Dutchman Wout Poels proved to be the best poker player in Ans after 6:24 of wind rain and snow over the brutal Liège-Bastogne-Liège parcours. The surprising Michael Albasini upstaged his team leader, Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) to take second with Portuguese champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) in third spot and ‘Golden Oldie’ Samuel Sanchez (BMC) completing the late breakaway quartet.

PEZ tipped two of the first four in our preview with Costa and Sanchez but Albasini’s late move caught out big pre-race favorites Valverde (Movistar), Martin and Alaphilippe (both Etixx – Quick-Step) on this miserable day which was only for the hardest of men. At the start it’s more like a winter training run than the fourth and oldest of the five Monuments – skull caps below helmets, clear lenses in the shades, mouths covered, racing capes, leg warmers, over shoes and gloves.

The race today will be the last two hours with eight tough climbs jammed into the final 84 kilometers; but there’s the minor matter of four hours, 169 kilometers and virtually no flat road before that ‘real’ 84K race begins. Two things are certain, no one’s tan will be topped up and it will be one hard man who wins this race – 200 have made the start, it’ll be interesting to see how many finish.

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Kilometer zero and we have immediate flurries; off the front and out of the sky. . .

We’re an hour in when what looks like our ‘break of the day’ of seven optimistic souls finally gets a decent gap – four minutes and we have Paolo Tiralongo (Astana), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), Jeremy Roy (FDJ), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), and Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Argon 18). Brutt, De Marchi and De Gendt are ‘big engines’ they’ll work hard whilst Tiralongo and Roy are wily old pros – it’s a very solid group. Word has come through that the parcours is being changed to avoid the worst of the snow as Vegard Stake Laengen (IAM Cycling) bridges up to make eight up front with 8:30 of an advantage – he’s Norwegian, he’ll be at home in the snow. . .

The first climb of the day isn’t far away, the Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne, 6.2K @ 6.2% with a maximum grade of 7% – according to reports it’s snow free up there, thankfully. Roy leads over the Côte; 13 years he’s been with F des J – you can’t get more French than that.

Meanwhile, back in the peloton Movistar and QuickStep are to the fore with Valverde, Alaphilippe and Martin in mind – the domestiques will earn their salt on this day. The next joust with Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery is the Côte de Saint-Roch and it’s a nasty; 1,000 meters at 11.2% average, 21% maximum – but at least the sun is out as the gap holds steady at around nine minutes.

Edet tops the Cote first, this time; he’s not a bad climber having won the mountains prize in the Vuelta in 2013. The next climb will be the Côte de Wanne, 2.7K @ 7.4% average and 16% maximum – but it’s an hour away and the first of those ‘eight in the final 80’ we spoke of earlier. The peloton crosses Saint-Roch @7:45 as the snowflakes put in an appearance, again – let’s hope it’s just a flurry. . .

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We’re running into climb three, 2.7K @ 7.4% max. 16% – the Côte de Wanne through nice green fields with some blue sky showing and the bunch now at four minutes. Côte de la Haute-Levée, not too savage at 3.6 K @ 5.6% average with a max of 12% – and every climb sees a few more drift backwards, never to be seen again.

Over the top and the snow stings again, there will be a lot of DNF this day as Movistar slice a hole in the snow for Valverde. Côte du Rosier now, 4.4K @ 5.9% average, max 19% with the break 3:41 clear of Movistar as snow turns to cold rain. Still the eight work hard up front but the gap is down to 2:00 – and those two minutes are borrowed on a day when even the diehard Belgian fans are watching on TV beside the fire in their favorite bar.

The break begins to splinter on the Col du Maquisard, 2.5 K @ 5% average, 10% maximum, just three remain as a coherent group over the top; De Gendt, De Marchi and Edet – Tommy Voeckler (Direct Energie) is trying to get across, but it’s just for the cameras. . .

The legend that is La Redoute is next, 2K @ 8.9% average, maximum 19% – it used to be the decisive point of the race, not now. They’re all too evenly matched now and everyone knows that the race will be won on the last two horrible final ascents to Ans. The big Norwegian has come back, so it’s four fugitives approaching La Redoute – not a good day for the beer tents and barbies up there. Edet is keen to be first to the top, De Marchi marks the Frenchman as the snow pays another visit; there’s a decent crowd on this climb as Tommy V gets clawed back by the peloton, as does Roy. De Marchi and Edet are over with a minute in hand; De Gendt awaits his fate – to be chewed up by Movistar. Côte de la Roche-aux-Fauchons is our next climb as De Gendt defies the peloton and gets back to De Marchi and Edet – but not for long. . . The Roche-aux-Fauchons isn’t fun – 1,500 meters @ 9.4% average and 16.5% maximum; De Marchi and Edet will succumb there and we’ll get attacks, for sure.

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QuickStep are on point now as De Marchi then Edet are caught even before the Roche-aux-Fauchons – there are maybe 60/70 left with Martin and Alaphilippe well to the fore as the climb begins. Poels is there for Sky, ‘Gaspa’ for Wanty, Albasini for GreenEDGE – it’s a bloodbath behind as riders stream out of the back. It’s ‘compact,’ 20K to go, QuickStep lead.

Betancur goes on the attack, a nice move by Valverde’s team mate to put pressure on QuickStep as they meters click down towards the dreaded new final ascent of the Cote de la Rue Naniot, 600 meters @ 10.5%. QuickStep bring Betancur back as down comes the rain and snow with 14 K to go and maybe 40 riders left in contention on this horrible day. Kwiatkowski shows for Sky as they pass the Standard Liege soccer stadium – the Pole has a gap, Betancur covers him as does Grivko for Astana.

The penultimate horror of the Côte de Saint Nicolas now with 7.5K to go, 8.6% is the grade – very sore at this stage of the day. Bardet is lively for AG2R as we get the imbeciles running alongside the riders – where are the police? Rosa (Astana) Zakarin (Katusha) are clear over the top, it’s slippy, slippy as Zakarin has to put his foot down on a bend; they’re pulled back in less time than it takes to write.

Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), Swift (Sky), Nibali (Astana) all gone. . .

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Perhaps 20 are left as they hit the Naniot, it’s cobbled and horrible; Alaphilippe leads – but then Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) takes it up, Costa (Lampre-Merida) comes up to mark him, Sanchez (BMC) too and Poels. These four are clear but they can’t play poker, the hounds are on their trail – they have to stick with the job.

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The red kite and only Albasini realizes the danger and drives, the rest look back and at each other, stall, wait and wait. Zakarin is trying to bridge as Poels makes a move but then sits up – despite the lull, it looks like the race belongs to these four.

They round the final left hander, Poels has the legs and goes long – it’s Poels! Albasini can’t match him, it’s the Dutchman from the Swiss and Costa with none of the big favorites in the top 10.

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A race of snow and surprises closes a great Classic season. Soon be the Primavera. . .

Liège-Bastogne-Liège Result:
1. Wouter Poels (Ned) Sky 06:24:29
2. Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-GreenEDGE
3. Rui Costa (Por) Lampre-Merida
4. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) BMC at 0:04
5. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha at 0:09
6. Warren Barguil (Fra) Giant-Alpecin at 0:11
7. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff at 0:12
8. Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha
9. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo
10. Diego Rosa (Ita) Astana
11. Tanel Kangert (Est) Astana
12. Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Wanty-Groupe Gobert
13. Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale
14. Michael Valgren (Den) Tinkoff
15. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Argon 18
16. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar
17. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC
18. Arnold Jeannesson (Fra) Cofidis
19. Stephen Cummings (GB) Dimension Data
20. Lars Petter Nordhaug (Nor) Sky
21. Alex Howes (USA) Cannondale
22. Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Lotto Soudal
23. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Etixx – Quick-Step
24. Manuele Mori (Ita) Lampre-Merida at 0:40
25. Giovanni Visconti (Ita) Movistar.

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