Wout Poels handed Team Sky their first ever Monument success by winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday.
While Sky had established themselves as perhaps the dominant Grand Tour outfit since their creation in 2010, winning the Tour de France three times in four years with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, they had never mastered the biggest one-day classics.
That all changed on Sunday as Poels outsprinted Switzerland’s Michael Albasini and Rui Costa of Portugal at the end of the gruelling 248km Ardennes classic raced in freezing conditions that included showers of snow at times.
“It’s really nice, I’m really happy. I honestly can’t believe that I won today, so I’m really happy,” Poels told Belgian TV after his win.
“The weather was even snowing, it was a really hard day.
“I like the last (categorised) climb, we got away there. It was really hard conditions.
“I didn’t feel super any more but everybody was really tired.”
The route had to be altered due to the treacherous conditions caused by snow, with 5km from the original course removed and a 30km section through a forest bypassed.
Albasini made an attack on the final categorised climb on the hilly course, the Cote de Rue Naniot with around 2.5km left.
Costa, Samuel Sanchez and Poels were the only riders able to follow that dig as pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde — a three-time former winner — was caught out.
Valverde finished down in 15th at 12sec.
– ‘Good little dig’ –
Poels first attacked the leading group of four on the final drag up to the finish in the Liege suburb of Ans before opening out the sprint in the final 250m and holding on to win in 6hr 24min 29sec.
Albasisni tucked in behind him but didn’t have the strength to pull past as Sanchez wilted and Costa settled for third.
“I did a little dig, it was a good one,” said Poels of the final uphill drag before the tight left-hand bend that ushered in the finish.
“After the corner I went full (gas) and it worked!”
A seven-man breakaway braved the cold, snow, rain and even hail at times on a miserable day to be spending almost six and a half hours in the saddle.
Inside the final 50km, the breakaway group, which at one point held a 10-minute lead, started to split up.
On the tough La Redoute climb 40km from the finish, there were just two left in Alessandro De Marchi and Nicolas Edet.
But Valverde’s Movistar team were turning the screw in the chasing peloton.
De Marchi and Edet held on until 24km left having spent more than 200km in the lead as Etixx took up the pace-setting for Julien Alaphilippe and Dan Martin, second and third respectively behind Valverde at the midweek Fleche Wallonne race.
They would eventually have to settle for 22nd and 46th respectively, with Martin almost two minutes off the pace.
Onto the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucon with 20km left, the field really started breaking up.
With 18km to go Colombian Carlos Betancur — a team-mate of Valverde — went on the attack but was reeled in 2km later.
On Saint-Nicolas Russian Ilnur Zakarin and Italian Diego Rosa got a gap but it didn’t last long either.
It was Albasini who finally made a significant attack stick with just three riders able to stay with him.
Many felt he’d be the best sprinter come the finish but specialist climber Poels simply proved fresher.
“He did a great sprint,” Albasini said of Poels.
“After 250km it’s freshness that counts more than a sprinter’s ability.”
Results from Sunday’s 248km Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic:
1. Wout Poels (NED/Sky) 6hr 24min 29sec, 2. Michael Albasini (SUI/ORI) same time, 3. Rui Costa (POR/LAM) s.t., 4. Samuel Sanchez (ESP/BMC) at 4sec, 5. Ilnur Zakarin (RUS/KAT) 9, 6. Roman Kreuziger (CZE/TIN) 12, 7. Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP/KAT) s.t., 8. Bauke Mollema (NED/TRE) s.t., 9. Diego Rosa (ITA/AST) s.t., 10. Tanel Kangert (EST/AST) s.t.
11. Enrico Gasparotto (ITA/WGG) s.t., 12. Romain Bardet (FRA/ALM) s.t., 13. Michael Valgren (DEN/TIN) s.t., 14. Patrick Konrad (AUT/BOA) s.t., 15. Alejandro Valverde (ESP/MOV) s.t.,
– Agence France-Presse