Maxim Iglinskiy won Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the biggest race of his career, with the Astana rider timing a late attack perfectly to catch an unfortunate Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian’s brave move on the Cote de La Redoute seemed to be enough to win his first Classic of the season, but as the race wore on he gradually began to tire, being caught with just a kilometre to go to the finish.
The early breakaways
There were six riders featuring in the day’s breakaway, including Dario Cataldo from Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The Italian was the only rider in the break from a WorldTour outfit, with Argos-Shimano’s Simon Geschke the most notable of the five riders from Pro Continental teams.
Despite this, it was Geschke who was the first of the lead six to be swallowed up by the peloton. He hit the deck at the base of the Cote de Stockeu with around 90km remaining and sat up, waiting for the inevitable catch. Meanwhile a small counter-attack instigated by Europcar’s Pierre Rollandtried to escape, as the peloton organised the chase behind.
Movistar’s Belarusian Vasil Kiryienka and Saur-Sojasun’s David Le Lay joined Rolland in attempting to break away, with the strong Kiryienka presumably attacking to provide support for teammate Alejandro Valverde, one of the race favourites. It didn’t take long before the front five were caught by the pursuers, although with Lotto-Belisol and BMC contributing to the pace-setting at the front of the peloton, they struggled to open a gap of over two minutes.
As the trio of counter-attackers tried to drive up the pace in the break, the day’s original escapees were shed one-by-one. Meanwhile Philippe Gilbert looked the epitome of cool as he dropped back to the team car for some new eyewear and arm warmers with around 45 km remaining.
Chaos on La Redoute
However, there was no room for cool as the riders began the ascent of the Cote de La Redoute – the most famous climb of the race, 35km from the finish. A couple of riders, including Garmin-Barracuda’s young star of the Classics Alex Howes, attacked with BMC working hard on the front to not let them get away.
At the other end of the peloton, Valverde was forced to change bikes on the steepest part of the climb, killing his chances. He later explained what had happened:
Just at the start of the Redoute, Voeckler crashed and I couldn’t avoid him. I fell and my gears got twisted. I had to stop and wait for Madrazo, who gave me his bike.
To add insult to injury, Valverde was one of five riders later disqualified for steering off the race route when they took a wrong turn and inadvertently took a short-cut.
As the other leaders continued the ascent, it was Gilbert who looked in the prime position, with his teammate Tejay Van Garderen leading a BMC train towards the finish.
With 20km to go an attack from Vincenzo Nibali off the summit of the Cote de La Roche aux Faucons triggered a move from the Belgian champion, with Lotto-Belisol’s Jelle Vanendert, Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler and Astana’s Robert Kiserlovski also among the late attackers. It was a very smart attack from the ‘Shark’ Nibali who, as a downhill specialist, was able to open up a gap on the rest of the favourites on the descent. With 15km remaining, Nibali had around 25 seconds in hand, powering his way towards the finish.
With a sizeable chase group, it seemed like a big task for Nibali to hold them at bay. But there was a lack of cohesion amongst the pursuers, with no-one wanting to ruin their own chances by expending energy trying to reel the Liquigas rider in.
Iglinskiy’s late charge
Eventually, with 10km left, a few riders decided to take it into their own hands. Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) attacked off the chase group, with Rolland and Dan Martin (Garmin-Barracuda) in close pursuit.
Meanwhile, back in the Gilbert group, still no-one was willing to pick up the chase. They all seemed to grind to a halt, waiting for each other to up the pace. Nibali’s gap to the favourites group was 45 seconds over the final climb of the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, but he was slowly but surely being reeled in by Iglinskiy. The Kazakh was just seven seconds in arrears, and could by now as they navigated their way into the suburb of Ans.
The Sicilian was pedalling squares, and was eventually caught agonisingly within sight of the flamme rouge. Iglinskiy twisted the knife by powering straight past him to take the best win of his long career. It was Astana’s second victory of the Ardennes week after Enrico Gasparotto won the Amstel Gold Race.
Speaking of Gasparotto, he won the sprint for third place from the chase group to put two Italians on the podium. Gilbert rolled in alone 16th a few seconds later with his head bowed, unable to live up to the level of performance showed last year, sadly disproving the theory that his form was improving ahead of this race.
Iglinskiy revealed after the race that former two-time winner and Astana team captain Alexandre Vinokourov had called him in the morning to spur him on, but that he was nonetheless surprised to have caught Nibali at the end:
I have raced Liège seven times and I can finally win. It was a surprise that I could catch Nibali. I could see he was suffering and I attacked him because I could see he was finished. I just buried myself and I could win.
This race brings to a close an exciting and unpredictable Classics campaign. Philippe Gilbert will undoubtedly be disappointed with his performances, and you have to wonder if he’ll ever be able to recreate the purple patch in which he found himself this time last year.
If he was any other rider then his form wouldn’t have been seen as so poor – he did, after all finish third at Flèche Wallonne. But after raising the bar so high, he’s constantly expected to win this kind of race – and he himself undoubtedly believes that he should win them.
But what this spring has shown is that it takes everything from phenomenal fitness to intelligent racecraft to win the Ardennes triple, and it underlines just what an incredible achievement it was. Dogged by dental issues from the start of this season, he can’t have approached it in the way he’d have liked. Can he do it again in the future? I wouldn’t bet against it!
Elsewhere, credit must go to Maxim Iglinskiy and Astana. Iglinskiy is a rider who’s so often finished in the top ten in big Classics, but has so rarely managed to take the win, although he announced his form in finishing second behind Fabian Cancellara at Strade Bianche last month. Today’s victory in La Doyenne means he’s finally got that elusive first, and will hopefully be on for many more.
As for Astana, they approached this spring campaign without a single rider who you’d think could win a big Classic. Robert Kiserlovski and Maxim Iglinskiy are decent climbers when on form, as are Dmitriy Fofonov and Enrico Gasparotto. Decent, but nothing out of the ordinary. As it is, they’ve won two of the big Classics, and have a podium to boot. A superb week.
1. Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana) 6:43:52
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:21
3. Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) +0:36
4. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) same time
5. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Barracuda) s/t
6. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) s/t
7. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) s/t
8. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) s/t
9. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) s/t
10. Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) s/t