Poels secures Team Sky's first-ever Monument victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege
'It shows everybody we can do these kinds of Classics as well as the Grand Tours'
When Wout Poels (Team Sky) was asked how he would celebrate his breakthrough victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday, and for a brief moment, the 28-year-old Sky rider looked genuinely perplexed.
“I don’t know,” the Dutchman finally said, “all I know is right now I’m driving home alone. Maybe a little beer with my friends tonight.”
That he was initially a little unsure of his response is perhaps fair enough. After all, Poels had not only secured the biggest result of his career in Sunday, this was the first victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege for a Dutch rider in 28 years, too, and, of course, after over six years in the peloton, Team Sky’s first-ever victory in a Monument Classic to boot.
Nor was Poels track record in Liège-Bastogne-Liège particularly encouraging, given he didn’t race it in 2015, was 80th in 2014, 76th in 2012 and did not finish in 2011. However, a fourth place in Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday and steady progress in Team Sky both in the Classics and in stage racing - he took victories this year alone in the Volta a Catalunya and Tour of Valencia and was a strong climber for Chris Froome in 2015 en route to Tour de France success for the Briton - had suggested that a major result in a hilly one-day race was long overdue.
Then when Poels tore out of the quartet of riders on the inside of the final bend of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and kept Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) at bay all the way to the line, that victory finally arrived.
Sunday’s bitterly cold and rainy weather, Poels said, was definitely a factor in his favour, “because although it was a hard day, I felt good throughout, I had plenty of warm clothing.” But he had, he agreed, never previously been in the situation he found himself two kilometres from the line, in a leading break with three other riders.
“We went for it on the new cobbled climb. I really like that one now” he joked afterwards - “and we got a really good gap. The others were looking really strong, but I knew it was a long drag to the finish, and that was good for me.
“I did one little attack, not a really hard one and then I was afraid the bunch would come back, so when we hit the final corner, I went for it again with 150 metres to go. I thought ‘let’s see what happens.’”
For Poels, too, taking Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a landmark achievement in another way, given that nearly four years ago an appalling crash in the 2012 Tour de France had almost put paid to his career. In what was known as the ‘Metz Massacre’, when a huge number of riders were injured 25 kilometres from the finish of stage 5 in a 70kmh crash, Poels - who initially tried to keep riding but abandoned after a further ten kilometres - suffered a ruptured spleen and kidney, three broken ribs and bruised lungs.
The recovery process led to three months off the bike altogether and as he recalled on Sunday, “some people were saying maybe I should stop riding a bike altogether. From two years ago, I started getting a good feeling on the bike, but it was some days worse, some days better. Now, I’ve got much more stable condition and I’m really happy with that.”
The difference between the Poels of 2016 and Poels of a few years ago is not just physical, either, he argued. “Before I was spending too much time in the back of the peloton, spending too much energy to get back into position. Now I’m staying closer to the front at the important moments, and I’ve got a really strong team around me, too.”
For Sky, winning one of the five Monuments has been a long awaited moment, and as Poels put it “it’s good, it shows everybody we can do these kinds of Classics as well as the Grand Tours.” The main difference between his current team and previous squad Etixx-QuickStep, he argued, is that “Sky is mainly for the general classification of stage races, even though that wasn’t the case today.
“At QuickStep I was training well with Tom Steels, but now I’m working with [Sky trainer] Tim Kerrison, I’m maybe riding a little bit harder.”
Having taken such a breakthrough win, would he at some point look at going for Grand Tours, one Dutch journalist asked. “Maybe, Chris is obviously really outstanding at that and it’s a whole different area,” Poels said. “But this could speed up my progress in that direction for the future about that.”
For now, in any case, Poels recognised he needed to get used to the idea of winning one of the biggest one-day races in cycling. “When I drive back home alone today,” he said, “that’s maybe when it’ll sink in.”
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.
By Jackie Tyson