As Enrico Gasparotto sat in the press room after winning Amstel Gold Race for the second time, he couldn’t help but cast his mind back three weeks to when he first learned of the tragic crash that claimed his teammate Antoine Demoitié’s life.
On that Sunday afternoon, Gasparotto was has in high spirits as he waited with his Wanty-Groupe Gobert companions for their flights home after a tough Volta a Catalunya. Gent-Wevelgem was taking place at the same time, and the general levity in the departures lounge at Barcelona airport was quickly dampened when word filtered through that Antoine Demoitié had been struck by a motorbike after crashing during the race, and was now in a critical condition in hospital.
“I was with Gaëten Bille, Antoine’s best friend on the team, when we got the call about his crash,” Gasparotto said in Valkenburg on Sunday. “It was a special moment. Gaëten called his wife and then we realised that he was close to death. From that point, I felt sick inside. I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Gasparotto awoke at his Swiss home on the Monday morning to the doleful confirmation that Demoitié had died, and was still processing the news when anti-doping testers knocked on his door for an out-of-competition control. “Ok, it’s our job, and we have to do the controls, but it was not the right moment to do a control,” he said.
Later that afternoon, Wanty-Groupe Gobert announced that it would not race at the Three Days of De Panne as its riders were in no state of mind to return to competitive action so soon after Demoitié’s death. Gasparotto, however, had already planned a solo training camp atop Mount Teide for that week, and after consultation with the team’s management, decided to travel to Tenerife rather than fly to Belgium for Demoitié’s funeral.
“I asked my teammates and the staff what they thought was best, if I should come to Belgium or stay in Tenerife and they said: ‘Gaspa, stay in Tenerife and try to be focused for this week,’” Gasparotto said. “I did it and I think it was the right choice. I was alone and sometimes when you’re alone, it’s better. You can be more focused.
“I felt a big responsibility inside myself in these days, a really big responsibility. Yesterday, Antoine’s wife came to see us at the hotel and said ‘Guys, go for it.’ It was not easy. It is not easy. I am 34 years old, I have a wife. Every day we think about it. Antoine’s death is so fresh.”
A victory is no compensation at all for the tragic loss of a young life, but the Wanty-Groupe Gobert riders may at least have drawn some consolation from their togetherness and their determined performances in the period since Demoitié’s death. Dimitri Claeys won admirers with his attacking effort at the Tour of Flanders, and Gasparotto said that the team has drawn on additional motivation in recent weeks.
“I already felt it when I was training in Tenerife. When you do seven hours alone and climb 4,500 metres, you have time to think about everything. When I thought about Antoine, I went 30 watts more than normal, or 3 or 4 or 5kph more than normal,” Gasparotto said, adding that the entire team had ridden above itself, citing the example of Mark McNally, a late addition to the Amstel roster.
“He had to travel 900 kilometres from a race in France to get here. His job was to protect me early in the race but he stayed by my side until 60 kilometres to go. Then Kenny Dehaes made a huge effort to get me a bottle in the finale. He came up, gave it to me and said, ‘Gaspa, I’m fucked.’
“It gives you extra power when you have teammates who do so much for you. So I was afraid to come back on the bus afterwards and say ‘Sorry guys, it wasn’t my day.'”
At the US Masters golf tournament, the winner is traditionally asked to talk reporters through his final round, hole by hole. One senses that, had he been asked, Gasparotto would have happily provided a similarly forensic account of every one of the 34 climbs or even the 248.7 kilometres of Amstel Gold Race. Fabian Cancellara apart, it is difficult to think of a more effusive Classics winner than Gasparotto, whose first answer lasted over four minutes.
“The final was very hard because of the rain and at one point, I thought I was maybe out of it, because I was suffering so much with the cold. But then I looked at the faces of the other guys and I saw that they were suffering just like me,” Gasparotto said.
When Gasparotto last won Amstel Gold Race in 2012, he used all of his nous to beat the heavily favoured Peter Sagan on the old finale atop the Cauberg. He employed effectively the same playbook this time around, reasoning that he had to forge clear on the climb itself rather than take his chances in a possible sprint against pre-race favourite Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) over the top.
“When I won in 2012, I did most of the Cauberg with the 39 instead of 53, and I decided to do the same today. I almost crashed at the corner at the bottom and then I moved up to the front. Nobody was attacking so I went with the 39 and then I switched to the 53 when I came to the old finish,” Gasparotto said of his winning attack, adding that he was grateful the surprising Michael Valgren (Tinkoff) bridged across.
“I wouldn’t have won if I’d been alone because there was a super strong headwind over the top. I was maybe lucky that it wasn’t Roman Kreuziger either, because we would have played a bit before the sprint. Instead, Valgren was happy to pull to make sure he came second at least, and I was able to wait and wait for the sprint.”
Gasparotto’s record in Amstel Gold Race is a remarkable one – since finishing third in 2010, he has only once finished outside the top 10 – but despite that consistency, he was unable to land a contract at WorldTour level when he was deemed surplus to requirements at Astana at the end of 2014. His cause was not helped, perhaps, by reports in the Italian press in 2012 that linked Gasparotto to the long-running Padova doping inquiry, even though he later procured documentation to demonstrate that he was not under investigation.
The drop to Pro Continental level may have been an initial disappointment for Gasparotto, but the 34-year-old wondered on Sunday evening if it had been a blessing in disguise. After riding for placings at WorldTour points at Liquigas, Lampre and Astana over the years, he had eyes only for the win at Amstel Gold Race.
“I don’t have the problem of points anymore. I start races to win and not to finish in the top 10,” Gasparotto said. “That’s a big change in my head.”