With Sergio Henao withdrawn from racing by Team Sky after the UCI’s Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation sought further information about his biological passport blood profile, Wout Poels found himself elevated to the role of leader at La Flèche Wallonne.
Poels would eventually place fourth on the Mur de Huy behind winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and the Etixx-QuickStep duo of Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin to score his best-ever result in a one-day Classic.
Making the Netherlands selection for the road race at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games is one of Poels’ primary ambitions for the season, and on the start line in Marche-en-Famenne on Wednesday, he told Dutch television that he was targeting a place in the top five in a bid to make his case for a seat on the flight to Brazil.
“I’m really happy with it. I wanted to focus on the Classics a bit this year because I’m trying to get in the selection for the Olympics for the Netherlands and I think I did pretty well,” Poels told Cyclingnews after accepting the compliments of a group of Dutch fans at the roadside past the finish line on the Mur de Huy.
“At the bottom I was on Valverde’s wheel. He’s won already a few times so I knew he was going to be really, really strong here. I think I was in a perfect position. I did everything I could. In the end I came fourth – not too bad.”
Poels was well-positioned in the final 300 metres of the climb, but he was unable to hold the wheels when first Martin, and then Valverde and Alaphilippe pulled away in the finale. He came home in fourth place, four seconds down on Valverde, but ahead of Amstel Gold Race winner Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and former Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez (BMC).
“I was thinking about winning near the summit but it’s always really hard,” Poels said. “But I’m already happy that I could go top five here today. A nice result and a nice day.”
Stepping in for Henao
Had Henao been in action, of course, Poels’ race might have been very different, though he was to have been afforded a degree of freedom even before the Colombian was withdrawn from the line-up. “Normally I would have been a protected rider anyway but it might have been a little different. Sergio might have needed me to take him to the front in the final,” Poels said
Sky took the unusual step of themselves announcing that the CADF had asked Henao to explain fluctuations in blood values recorded between August 2011 and June 2015. Poels and his Sky teammates were informed of the decision to withhold Henao from racing on Tuesday evening.
“It’s really not a nice situation. I train for these races so I’m always motivated but it’s something different,” Poels said of the atmosphere beforehand. “Something happening like that is not nice, but hopefully everything is going to be ok with him.”
Henao was already side-lined for three months by Sky in 2014, when the team announced its intention to carry out a study on the effects living at altitude may have on his blood values. The findings of that study have not been published.
Poels already had two top 15 places at Flèche Wallonne to his name from his spells at Vacansoleil and QuickStep, but he has never enjoyed similar showings at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and was cautious about his prospects this Sunday.
“I think it also suits me but it’s a whole different race and 50 or 60 kilometres longer. But I’m in good shape, so we’ll see,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether Poels will be joined at La Doyenne by Chris Froome, who has been pencilled in to the provisional Sky line-up, though his participation has yet to be confirmed. “I’m not sure if he’s coming,” Poels said. “But I thought he was and it would be nice if he does.”