According to La Dernière Heure, Vanendert was sharply criticised by Wellens for failing to work for him, and breaking a pre-race agreement on tactics. On the day, Vanendert finished third on the Mur de Huy, while Wellens took seventh.
Lotto Soudal are one of the strongest teams collectively in the hilly Classics this year, and even prior to their Flèche Wallone results, the Belgian squad had won Brabantse Pijl and taken sixth in Amstel with Wellens, as well as tenth in Amstel with Vanendert.
But their failure to establish a clear hierarchy on the Mur de Huy did not go unnoticed by their rivals: Philippe Gilbert (Quick Step Floors), who took Lotto’s last big Classic win at Liege in 2011, said, somewhat drily, on Friday, that “the type of internal crisis I saw in Lotto Soudal after the Mur de Huy would not happen in our team.” Meanwhile, in his weekly column for La Meuse newspaper on Saturday, former Classics star Johan Museeuw wrote: “If I was in Vanendert’s place, I would try to get in a good breakaway in the finale [of Liège] so he doesn’t have to work for Wellens.”
Come their pre-race press conference for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the team appeared with three riders as their co-leaders: Vanendert, who was not originally slated to have a top role, according to La Dernière Heure, but has now earned protected status, Tiesj Benoot, who is riding his first Doyenne, and Wellens. Both Lotto management and the riders themselves were at pains to put Wednesday’s spat behind them.
“Tim’s declaration was an emotional reaction,” said team manager Marc Sergeant. “He was disappointed about his result, but Jelle did nothing wrong, he was simply very strong.”
“I regret saying what I did,” added Wellens. “I paid a lot on the climb [of the Mur] for an earlier effort. Jelle was certainly very strong and he put in a superb performance.”
Both Wellens and Vanendert confirmed they thought they had a chance of winning on Sunday, with Vanendert – who has only shone sporadically in the past, although he has two runners-up spots in Amstel Gold to his name – saying, half-seriously, “Let me stay in the shadows, that’s where I work the best.”
Meanwhile Wellens observed that data from test performances showed he was stronger than last year, and after wasting his energy on longer-distance attacks in previous Aprils, that it was the first time he was bringing home a crop of good results in the Ardennes. “Who’s the leader?” he asked rhetorically, before answering his own question with a smile and a “There’s lots of us.”
Benoot, meanwhile said that although he preferred the Flemish Classics, he wanted to see what he could do in the Ardennes as well “and this is the last Monument for me to discover.”
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