RBA/AFP – Luxembourg’s Bob Jungels produced yet another surprise victory from distance in cycling’s Spring Classics, winning the Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday after a solo breakaway from 20km out.
Canada’s Michael Woods came second with France’s Romain Bardet third to complete an unexpected podium at the end of the 258km race that took 6hrs, 24min and 44sec. Jungels, of the powerful Belgian Quick Step team, had made a break from 20km as a decoy, he admitted after the race, but he opened such a gap that the chief contenders failed to galvanise themselves until it was too late.
“We all thought Julian (Alaphilippe) and the others would pass me at Ans, but they never made it,” said Jungels. “I was trying to keep Julian, our captain, in a strong position. But then I was alone and kept getting further ahead. I’m super proud, it’s a pleasure to finish off the Spring in a nice way.”
A field packed with potential winners embarked in fine, sunny conditions from the cobbled town centre streets of Liege into the rolling forests of Bastogne. An escape group of nine riders ramped up a gap of five minutes before a businesslike peloton decided that was quite enough on a course where it is famously difficult to keep track of others in the dense Ardennes forests.
The Spring Classics have been littered with long range wins ripping up the rule book, as Vincenzo Nibali sprung a surprise in the Milan-SanRemo, Niki Terpstra broke from deep in the Tour of Flanders and Peter Sagan lighting the fuse that saw him burn up the opposition from 55km out in the Paris-Roubaix. But this race has been decided on the final climb to Ans for the last 14 years and pre race favourites Alaphilippe and four-time winner Alejandro Valverde were the men expected to battle it out.
After allowing Jungels too much time Alaphilippe came in fourth, at 39sec, and Valverde 13th, at 51sec. “I was being too closely watched, every time I tried to break they were on it,” said the 38-year-old Valverde. “It was hot and humid out there too, but it’s been a great Spring for me — nine wins,” he said.
At the penultimate climb, with 20km to go at the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons, Quick Step captain Philippe Gilbert, then Sergio Henao and finally Jungels made attempted breaks off the front that kept everybody working. Jungels looked around and saw a chance and the Luxembourg champion set off alone. With 17km to go Dan Martin went after him with such conviction that Alaphilippe briefly followed him.
But Martin’s run of bad luck continued and he suffered a puncture with 6km to go. “I knew it was the right time to go, I had the legs, was really strong and we proved we are a top class team today,” said the Irishman, a former winner. Woods then followed a lightening break from Bardet and the pair came in some 37 seconds after Jungels had crossed the line in a joyous zig-zag celebration. Woods finishing second was maybe more of a sursprise then Jungels
“I was a runner and only became a pro-cyclist at 29,” said the Education First rider who was ninth last year. “This is the best race of my life, you have to cherish these moments. Earlier in the season I was questioning my own talent,” said Woods, who said Bardet inspired him to make the break 2km from the line. French cycling’s golden boy Bardet said he drew confidence from his third place finish.
“This shows I’m getting closer to the top spot,” said Bardet, who will be one of the favourites for the Tour de France. “It was a tactical win for Jungels, and nobody was going to catch him on the flat.”