When the decisive four-man group at Dwars door Vlaanderen formed on the Paterberg, it contained two rainbow jersey winners from the 2012 World Championships in Valkenburg. Philippe Gilbert, winner of the elite road race that day, was key to shredding the lead group, with the winner of the U23 title, Alexey Lutsenko, one of only three riders able to stay in touch.
In the end, both had to settle for the podium as tactics rather than legs decided the outcome, with Gilbert’s lesser-decorated Quick-Step Floors teammate Yves Lampaerts disappearing up the road in the final 10km.
Lutsenko, a great hope at Astana and seen as something of a successor to Alexander Vinokourov as the next star Kazakh rider, was greeted with high fives, cheers, and cries of ‘good job’ as he arrived back at the Astana bus after his trip to the podium.
‘Fifty-fifty’ was how the 24-year-old himself felt about his ride. “I’m happy with the podium because it’s a great result, but of course I’m slightly disappointed because it could have been better and maybe I could have won this race today, because I felt really good,” he told Cyclingnews and a Belgian reporter.
“But Quick-Step was clearly the strongest team, they had two guys at the front and that made it really hard to invent something. It was a good result, though, and a good performance, and I hope that I can get even more out of the coming races.”
Lutsenko’s performance was all the more impressive given the amount of work he had to do for teammate Matti Breschel. The pair found themselves at the head of affairs when Gilbert attacked on the Berendries with over 75km remaining, and Lutsenko set about doing long turns to help the lead group of nearly 20 maintain its advantage.
When it came to the Paterberg, however, it became clear he was the stronger of the two.
“Initially I was helping Matti Breschel, and I took the initiative and tried to work at the front of the group, but when Gilbert went on the Paterberg, I simply followed and it was down to four of us – and then there was no time to think about Matti. I just tried to do my own race from then on, and it worked well,” said Lutsenko, who was subsequently outmanoeuvred in the closing stages.
“It was a long and hard race, and I thought if I attacked I’d spend too much energy – possibly for nothing, so I preferred to wait for a sprint, because I was quite confident in myself and my sprint. As it turned out, when Lampaerts attacked, he went away, and we were left as three. In a sprint of three normally I’d think I could do it but Gilbert attacked a bit earlier, and I could not catch his wheel, but that’s how it is.”
A burgeoning cobbled classics talent
The Ardennes Classics have featured heavily on Lutsenko’s race programme since he turned pro with Astana in 2013, but he also feels right at home on the cobbles, which are becoming an increasingly important part of his career.
Whereas he failed to finish Liege-Bastogne-Liege on his first two appearances in 2013 and 2014, his introduction to the Tour of Flanders has been much more promising – 22nd in 2015 and 14th last year.
“I really like the cobbled races, I’ve been doing them for a few years, getting more and more experienced,” he said.
“I have got to know these roads really well since U23 level. I used to race a lot in Belgium, so I know the roads and the climbs very well now, and those steep climbs between one and two kilometres suit me very well.”
Lutsenko will ride a fairly full Flemish Classics programme, with E3-Harelbeke next up on Friday, followed by Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday and De Ronde the following Sunday.
“Last year I was 14th at Flanders, and I don’t think that’s the limit for me. This year I’m even better prepared, and I have felt really good recently,” he added.
“This result will give me more confidence ahead of the next races, so we will see how it goes. I like these races a lot and I think there’s still room for improvement in the next years.”