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Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) prevailed in a thriller of a finish to the 100th Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) was on the charge and seemed to have a shot at reprising his victory of last year — going under the red kite he had overhauled late breakaway Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) and was closing on Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha).
But the Irishman laid it down in the final corner, just 250 meters shy of glory, and in the final melee it was Gerrans blasting through for the victory ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
“Everybody was really tired coming into the finish, and fortunately I was well placed,” said a beaming Gerrans. “I was confident that I could beat these guys in a small sprint. But after 260k of racing, anything is possible, so I gave it my maximum.”
Martin, predictably, was heartbroken.
“The team rode a beautiful race today. We did everything right and they gave everything for me all day,” he said. “I hit a patch of something on the road, I don’t know exactly what happened — it was like falling out of a tree — and down I went. Before I knew it, it was over. I think there were tears in my eyes before I hit the floor.”
The early break
A half dozen riders — Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Michel Koch (Cannondale), Piermin Lang (IAM Cycling), Jacobus Venter (MTN-Qhubeka), Pieter Jacobs (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), and Marco Minnaard (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) — had 15 minutes at one point in the 263km race, but their margin was down to less than half that with 90km to go.
Minnaard couldn’t hold the pace and drifted back to the bunch.
With 75km to go a crash took down world champ Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Michal Golas (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), David Lopez (Sky) and Torres Agudelo (Team Colombia). Costa abandoned, as did Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing).
With 60km to go the gap was under four minutes. Ten kilometers further along it was just 2:30 with the Côte de la Redoute on the horizon.
Koch fell away from the break on La Redoute as the bunch closed to within two minutes, driven by Omega Pharma and Garmin-Sharp. Lang, too, lost the wheel, and Bono went off on his own.
Giant-Shimano’s Warren Barguil attacked on the upper reaches of the climb, drawing out Julian Arredondo (Trek) and Jan Bakelandts (Omega Pharma). But they weren’t given much of a leash.
Ahead, Venter clawed his way back up to Bono.
Last man standing
With 40km to race the two surviving breakaways had just over a minute’s advantage. And shortly, as Venter faded for good, Bono would be the last man standing, with just over 40 seconds in hand on the Côte des Forges, with the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons and Côte de Saint-Nicolas still to go.
Garmin’s Alex Howes jumped away from the chase on the Côte des Forges. Jérôme Baugnies (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) joined him, but they, too, got nowhere.
Bono’s solo ride finally came to an end early on the Roche-aux-Faucons.
Arrendondo tried again with 20km to race, drawing out Pozzovivo. The two rolled over the top with a BMC in hot pursuit, former Euskaltel-Euskadi standout and Beijing Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez.
Sanchez didn’t make much headway, and with 17km to go a sizable group formed up — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Dani Moreno (Katusha), Valverde and Kwiatkowski, among others.
Pozzovivo and Arrendondo were clinging to 15 seconds with a dozen kilometers left to race. But all the fuss behind saw the two chases fuse and finally pull the two escapees back in.
The lead group was more than 30 riders strong going into the final 10km. Movistar and Orica-GreenEdge were on the front.
One final escape
Stefan Denifl (IAM Cycling) had a dig, and after some hesitation Pozzovivo and Caruso went after him.
More hesitation followed, but Caruso and Pozzovivo had no doubts. They caught and dropped Denifl, and as the bunch dithered, the breakaways drove for the line with 5km to go.
Incredibly, the twosome quickly took 12 seconds on the pursuit, which included defending champion Martin. Nibali tried to jump away, as did Lars Petter Nordhaug (Belkin), to no effect.
Going under the red kite the two leaders still had a handful of seconds. And then Martin attacked from the chase, quickly gaining ground on the final uncategorized climb to the line.
It looked to be a fantastic finish for the Irishman, who had raced into second and seemed certain to at least contend for a repeat — until he went down in the final left-hand corner with the bunch hard on his heels.
And in the finale, it was Gerrans leading the charge past the gritty Caruso and taking the win from Valverde and Kwiatkowski.
“It’s an incredible victory, it’s a dream come true to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège,” said the 33-year-old. “It unfolded perfectly with me in the final. Everybody was really tight coming into the finish and I was perfectly placed to finish it.”
Valverde’s second place completed a highly impressive Ardennes campaign for the Movistar team leader, who was also fourth at Amstel.
“I feel very happy, it’s been a very good week for me and the team,” said Valverde, 34.
“With a bit more luck at Amstel I could have been on the podium and then I would’ve been on the podium in all three [Ardennes classics]. But I still think that with fourth, first and second, it’s a good return. Now it’s time for some rest and then to prepare for the Tour.”
Kwiatkowski was likewise consistent, having finished fifth at Amstel and third at Flèche.
“Right now I have a lot of hope for the future with what I did this last week,” said the 23-year-old Pole, who had top-five finishes at Amstel and Flèche last year before a poor Liège outing.
“It’s something special. I was aiming to be in really good shape for the Ardennes and I did it, especially today. To be on the podium at the end of Liège-Bastogne-Liège is really something special and I’m very happy.”