ANS, Belgium (VN) — The steep climbs that punctuate the woods and moors of eastern Belgium have borne witness to tactical battles both real — as in World War II’s furious Battle of the Bulge, which laid siege to Bastogne, the turnaround point of Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège race — and figurative. The difficulty of the terrain, the unpredictability of the weather, the winds that sweep across the open expanses of Belgium’s High Fens region all conspire to lay waste to the best laid plans, sporting and otherwise.
And so it is with the côtes and cols that pepper the second half of the course’s looping 260 kilometers, both their frequency and severity increasing as the race reaches its zenith. Everyone comes prepared to this final race of the classics, but the Ardennes is a place where brilliant plans go to die, and rarely does a team carry out its pre-race strategy as effectively as Garmin-Sharp did in delivering Dan Martin to the biggest win of his career.
Martin was the powerful right cross in a one-two punch set up by Ryder Hesjedal’s breakaway jab on the Côte de Colonster. Garmin’s strategy, executed to perfection by the powerful Canadian rider, laid waste to any other tactic their rivals may have contemplated ahead of the race. Coming into the Colonster, BMC sent half its team to the front, intent on controlling the race for team leader Philippe Gilbert. But Hesjedal’s attack shattered that effort, forcing the remnants of the peloton into a panicked chase up the short but steep Côte de Saint-Nicolas, the final ascent of the race, freeing Martin to ride tempo on the wheels of those left in Hesjedal’s wake.
After the race, Garmin sport director and 1990 Liège–Bastogne–Liège champion Eric Van Lancker praised the duo for their near-flawless teamwork in the race’s finale.
“Every race we do a team meeting and that was the plan today,” he said. “Hesjedal would attack on the Colonster so Dan could stay on the wheels and relax a little bit — if you can ever be relaxed in that part of the race.”
Van Lancker added that today was the culmination of a series of fine team efforts by the Garmin squad. Before today’s victory, he said, the team had not been outmaneuvered by others; rather, bad luck cost them potentially good results.
“I think we did a really great race at Amstel, but we had no result there,” he said. “Also at Flèche we [were good] again and we had really bad luck in the last lap with two flats, so that was really bad … We knew that we were ready, but sometimes you need also to be lucky.
“If you have the legs and you are good, for sure you can come in the finale like we did here. Before the race we knew we could be there in the finale. I didn’t say we could win the race this morning, but we knew the guys were ready.”
The team, he said, was focused on riding not just a tactically smart race, but a patient race as well. When it was clear that the early break would be small — and unlikely to stay away — Garmin held all of its key riders back. Without the massive engine of Johan Van Summered to drive a much more dangerous break for most of the day, as it did in last week’s Amstel Gold Race, Garmin focused on coming into the final kilometers with riders as fresh as they could be.
And, indeed, even Gilbert’s BMC Racing director John Lelangue could only praise Garmin’s simultaneous strength and teamwork in the final 20km of the race.
“Garmin made a great race,” he said. “Nothing more than to congratulate them. We made our tactic. Gilbert was missing a little bit in his legs in the end, and that was the difference.”
So too said Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez, the only rider who punctured Garmin’s plans, albeit only momentarily. Rodríguez, missing teammate and Flèche Wallone winner Daniel Moreno, who suffered a mishap at the bottom of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, executed a quick and effective tactical improvisation of his own. He attacked the leaders with about one kilometer to go, earning a significant gap and ensuring his spot on the podium before Martin stormed past him on the way to an uncontested victory.
“I think I did an almost perfect race,” he said, “thanks also to my team: we adopted a very smart strategy, in my opinion, and we did our best in order to win. I started my rush in the best place, but Martin was able to catch me very quickly and pass me in the last hundred meters. At first, I thought it was [Michele] Scarponi, so I considered to have some chances at the final sprint: but when I realized it was Martin, and how easy he managed to catch me, I understood he would have defeated me.”
Garmin’s final gambit, putting Hesjedal in front to drive the pace in the final kilometers, left Martin fresh for his closing move. Hesjedal, who surely would have relished the win for himself, was the first to congratulate his teammate Martin on the far side of the finish line, and told reporters he was pleased to have been able to position himself so perfectly for the finale.
“When the gap’s growing you always believe,” he said of his hopes for his solo attack at the top of the Colonster, “but just to get a head start, that’s my style: stay on it, get over Saint-Nicolas perfect and still be there. I was able to help Dan, keep that high speed there and give him a chance, and he finished it off. Quite great teamwork.”
Martin, meanwhile, basking in a victory earned in a brilliant final kilometer, said it was only the support of the team, in and out of the race, that had made it possible.
“We had a plan to put Ryder in a breakaway,” he said. “It would have been better if three or four other teams had gone with him, but they missed the move. We caught him at the perfect moment on Saint-Nicolas. He was so strong and he really helped me today.
“The entire team really believed in me. They were telling me all week I could win, even guys who were not at the race. We rode perfect tactics.”