Flurries of snow in the Ardennes saw Liège-Bastogne-Liège directed onto an alternative route after 45 kilometres, and though the bunch soon re-joined the original course, the miserable weather conditions meant that the race never quite returned to its expected coordinates.
Certainly, the anticipated battle between the Etixx-QuickStep pairing of Dan Martin and Julian Alaphilippe, and pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) never materialised, with all three finishing outside the top 15 in a most curious edition of La Doyenne.
Alaphilippe and Martin had been Valverde’s most dogged challengers at Flèche Wallonne in midweek, placing second and third, respectively. A rider steadily accumulates a debt when he spends more than six hours pedalling in frigid temperatures and squinting through sleet showers, however, and the day extracted its toll from Martin and Alaphilippe in the closing kilometres.
Martin was the first to betray signs of struggling, dropping towards the back of the sizeable leading group near the top of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and never returning to the front. He eventually placed 47th, 1:57 down on surprise winner Wout Poels (Sky).
“Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything that I did today. I changed clothes at the right moment and I dressed perfectly: I just didn’t have the legs in the finish,” Martin told Cyclingnews afterwards. “That was probably to do with the cold. It was a long, hard race.”
Alaphilippe lasted longer than Martin at the head of the race, and even accelerated at the base of the next climb, the Côte de la Rue Naniot, but the Frenchman’s effort felt as much an act of defiance as a show of intent. He was swamped shortly afterwards, and eventually placed 23rd, at the very rear of the large group that came home 12 seconds behind Poels.
“I am happy to have finished the race. This is the first time in my life I had to do a race in such bad weather. We riders have a dog’s life sometimes, honestly. I will remember this race all my life,” Alaphilippe said. “The team did a lot of work but unfortunately we didn’t succeed, and I struggled in the last kilometre.”
Indeed, with 20 kilometres to go, a delegation of Etixx-QuickStep riders led as the race scaled the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, preparing the ground for Martin and Alaphilippe. Right up to the moment he began to flag on the Saint-Nicolas, Martin looked to maintain the faith.
“You just tell yourself that everyone is feeling bad because of the weather, you just have to keep believing that you’ll be there in the final,” Martin said, and then added with gallows humour: “The moment you realise it’s over is when you get dropped. It’s just the way it is.
“I didn’t feel bad but all of a sudden my legs just stopped working. I didn’t have any power left. That might have been to do with the cold or whatever but you can’t change it by wondering why. It just happened.”
On Friday afternoon, Martin had wondered whether the addition of the short, sharp Côte de la Rue Naniot ahead of the final haul to Ans would lead to a more conservative approach from the contenders. In the event, the point was moot. Faced with such conditions, few riders were willing to show their hands, regardless of the finale.
“With the weather it’s hard to say. It would have been a completely if it had been 20 degrees. It just sucked the life out of everybody. Even without the new climb nobody would have been attacking because nobody can when it’s that cold,” Martin said. “I can’t really comment because I wasn’t really involved in the race by then.”
It was a point echoed by Etixx-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere, who wondered, too, if his riders’ efforts at Flèche Wallonne had also made themselves felt. “The weather played a big role, I think it was the biggest factor in the race,” Lefevere said.
“Dan Martin told me that on the Saint-Nicolas he couldn’t go anymore. Julian and Valverde were super on Wednesday and then today they both suffered. Then, Poels was fourth at Flèche but it looked as though it didn't affect him.”
Liège-Bastogne-Liège brings the curtain down on Martin’s first spring with Etixx-QuickStep after eight years in the Slipstream Sports set-up. Although it didn’t yield a classic victory, the Irishman had positives to take away from the campaign.
“I don’t tend to over-analyse what I do. Today definitely the weather didn’t play into our hands. You always want to come to Liège and do your best and be involved in the final at least. That didn’t happen today but I’m happy with how I’ve raced this spring, I’ve been consistent,” he said.
“I’ve learned lessons: maybe Pais Vasco wasn’t the best preparation, so I’ll probably go back to my usual programme next year. You’re just learning little lessons all the way and I’m learning this team as well.”
Next on the agenda for Martin is the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, ahead of a tilt at the general classification of the Tour de France, though he was guarded about his expectations. “I’m not going to say my ambition, but I’m going to go there thinking I can do better than I’ve ever done before.”