A maddening business, the Classics. A week after Mathew Hayman ad-libbed to pull off the surprise of the Spring by winning Paris-Roubaix, Orica-GreenEdge were now hoping that Amstel Gold Race would stick faithfully to the expected script, as they lined up with not one, but two favourites in the shape of Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans.
For six and a quarter hours in Limburg on Sunday, Orica-GreenEdge duly hit all of their lines, with Luke Durbridge, Michael Albasini and Hayman all prominent in exerting control on terrain that naturally lends itself to an unruly peloton.
When Matthews and Gerrans hit the base of the Cauberg for the final time safely ensconced in a reduced front group that had already shed contenders such as Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), the chances of an Orica-GreenEdge victory seemed ever greater, but their leading men would ultimately be upstaged by Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).
With a stiff headwind waiting in the final 1.8 kilometres over the top of the Cauberg, it was perhaps understandable there was little immediate reaction when Gasparotto jumped clear two-thirds of the way up the climb, but his move suddenly gained momentum when Michael Valgren (Tinkoff) bridged across towards the top.
There would be precious little collaboration among the 30-strong group of chasers over the top of the Cauberg, and Matthews would eventually have to settle for fifth place, four seconds down on Gasparotto, but Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif Matt White was frank in his appraisal of the finale.
"The team rode very well today, Durbridge rode for 170 kilometres, then you saw Albasini, Impey and Hayman control everything in the final lap and give the boys every chance into the Cauberg," White told Cyclingnews. "Michael [Matthews] was there when Gasparotto went first. Then Valgren went after that, and he was one wheel behind him. So he didn't have it when it mattered."
There were few riders willing to put their shoulders to the wheel and lead the chase inside the final 1800 metres over the top of the Cauberg, but White refused to look for alibis. His leaders, he said, had missed the moment on the Cauberg itself, not afterwards.
"I think it was a pretty hard day, and some of the contenders weren't there in the final. I think with the conditions, everybody was on the limit," White said. "It's always hard to get any kind of chase organised when the finish is one and a half kilometres from the top, but the guys just weren’t good enough on the day.
"Every team's got their plan. The two favourites were ourselves and Sky, and between us we controlled 95 percent of the bike race today. But between us our leaders weren't good enough to get the job done."
Since the finish moved from the centre of Maastricht to the top of the Cauberg in 2003, Amstel Gold Race has tended to be resolved by means of a simple shoot-out on the final climb. Yet while the cavernous slopes of the Cauberg were undoubtedly decisive again on Sunday, this was, by any metric, a curious edition of the race, with favourites such as Gilbert and Kwiatkowski surprisingly dropping out of contention long before the denouement.
"Who'd have picked Kwiatkokwsi to be dropped 30k from the finish?" White asked. "But it got very, very cold there for a period and I think some guys probably got caught a bit under-dressed. It was a nice day except for that 20 minutes when it rained heavily and the temperature dropped to five or six degrees, and some guys don't like that change. I haven't spoken to Michael or Simon yet, but they'll be disappointed for sure."
White had particular praise for the efforts of Hayman, who slotted back into his supporting role after his Paris-Roubaix victory of a week ago. The adjustment, it seems, had been a seamless one.
"It's probably harder for some than others," White said. "He fought to come back when he was dropped, and was there again in front on the last lap. That's probably the furthest he's ever gone at Amstel Gold Race. It just shows the character of the guy and the culture we've got in this team. What comes around goes around."
While Matthews' Classics campaign ended after Amstel Gold Race, Gerrans will set out in search of a second Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory next Sunday, though he will not line up at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
"Albasini's been one of the most consistent guys on the Mur de Huy for the last five years, and been on the podium twice, so he switches to our leader for Wednesday," White said.