Analysis: Astana surprises as former Liège winners fall flat

Iglinsky closes Ardennes week with another Astana surprise. Where were the favorites? Piecing together ideas for salvaging their seasons, perhaps

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The list of pre-race favorites for Liège-Bastogne-Liège included several former winners, such as defending champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), two-time winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and, to a lesser extent, 2009 winner Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), who has struggled throughout the 2012 season.

That list, however, did not include Kazakh rider Maxim Iglinsky of Astana — just as few had predicted his teammate, Italian Enrico Gasparotto, to win the Amstel Gold Race one week earlier.

When Iglinsky caught and passed the lone, desperate figure of Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) in the final 1500 meters, the Kazakh rider cemented Astana’s status as spoiler of Ardennes week. A few moments later, Gasparotto took the field sprint for third, 36 seconds back.

Iglinsky’s win certainly didn’t come out of thin air — he finished second to a solo Fabian Cancellara at Strade Bianche last month, and won that Italian semi-classic in 2010. He’s also won stages at the Tour of Germany, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour of Romandie.

Still, Strade Bianche is no Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest and hilliest of the sport’s one-day classics, and one of the sport’s five monuments.

Unlike Gilbert, Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne winner Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and the Schleck brothers, Iglinsky didn’t even make the extensive VeloNews list of pre-race favorites, while we listed Nibali, who finished third at Milan-San Remo, as a three-star favorite.

Immediately following the race, Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters wrote on Twitter, “Congrats to Maxim Iglinsky. Can’t say I saw that coming. He’s been a good one-day rider for a few years now, though.”

Gilbert also expressed surprise after the race, saying, “To me, he’s a surprise and I’m especially surprised by the way he did it. He was very strong. He’s a Kazakh, so maybe he’s also used to the foul weather.”

And just as Iglinsky surprised, the race’s former winners failed to deliver.

Gilbert seemingly allowed Nibali to roll away from the head of the race on the descent of Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, and was slow to chase or even closely follow wheels in the final 10km. The Belgian national champion was dropped on the final climb of the Côte de Saint Nicolas and limped across the finish line, alone, in 16th, 1:27 back. After sweeping Ardennes week last year, Gilbert, one of the sport’s highest-paid riders, leaves Liège with only a third-place finish at Flèche to show for his spring campaign.

Valverde, winner in Liège in 2006 and 2008, was forced to swap bikes with a teammate at the bottom of the Col de La Redoute and never recovered; race officials later disqualified Valverde and his Movistar teammates J.J. Rojas, Pablo Lastras and Angel Madrazo for riding off the official race course.

Rodríguez was among the contenders in the final 20km; the Katusha rider had jumped from the bunch with Iglinsky to chase down Nibali, but the Spaniard couldn’t hold the pace over the Côte de Saint Nicolas and finished 15th, last of the front chase group.

Meanwhile, both Andy and Fränk Schleck, the two men who stood beside Gilbert on the podium in 2011, could only consider their results disappointing. Fränk Schleck was dropped on the Redoute climb and crossed the line 23rd, 2:11 back; Andy Schleck finished 50th, 5:39 back.

Andy Schleck admitted post-race that things have not gone as planned for RadioShack-Nissan during the classics campaign.

“I had fantastic legs at the start, but it just didn’t go as planned. There were crashes of course, but we can’t always be blaming the weather,” he said. “I can’t say this has been a bed of roses; it has not been a good year for us. We have not been lazy, everyone has worked hard. But we cannot blame anyone else. We can only blame ourselves.”

Two-time winner Alexander Vinokourov, also of Astana, did not race; perhaps he was home, waiting for Alexander Kolobnev’s 2010 check to clear.

(After the race Iglinsky revealed that he had been spurred on to try his luck by Vinokourov, saying, “Alexander called me this morning and told me I could win this race, but that I had to try and get into a breakaway” — a tactic that apparently worked in 2010.)

The reasons for this flip-flop in race predictions will be analyzed over the coming days, however several factors must be considered.

Gilbert and Andy Schleck have both had lackluster spring campaigns, and though both riders have won the race before, and stood on the podium together last year, neither rider came to the start with the legs to back up a victory.

Race conditions were cold, windy and wet, prompting several wardrobe changes and dramatically affecting morale among favorites and domestiques alike. Soggy conditions might have tempered attacks, but it was a brutal fight for survival as BMC Racing and Lotto-Belisol led the chase. The fireworks began in earnest on the always-decisive La Redoute, where the peloton began to fracture. Nibali attacked on the descent of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons 20 kilometers later and opened a gap.

And once Nibali had forged out alone, negative racing allowed the gap to open, with only a handful of riders, including Iglinsky and Rodríguez, courageous enough to attempt to bridge across.

Still, the lack of firepower from previous winners will surely raise eyebrows in a sport where inconsistent results will forever be scrutinized — as will surprise results from two riders of the same team over a period of one week, particularly as Vinokourov, the figurehead of that team and a quasi-admitted drugs cheat, has been accused of buying his win just two years ago.

For the moment, however, Iglinsky and Gasparotto must be congratulated on their victories — the biggest for either in their respective careers — while riders such as Gilbert, Valverde and the Schleck brothers can only look forward to the Tour de France and beyond to salvage their disappointing seasons.

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