It’s hardly the most romantic of races, but for years, Lieuwe Westra had quietly endured an unhappy love affair with the Three Days of De Panne. Dating back to his professional debut with Vacansoleil in 2009, the Dutchman has been a committed performer on the North Sea coast, but had to settle only for near misses, placing second overall in both 2011 and 2012.
Westra missed the last two editions of the race after joining Astana at the beginning of 2014, and absence seemed only to make the heart grow fonder. On the windswept, rain-soaked opener in the Flemish Ardennes on Tuesday, it was Westra who sparked the winning move, punching clear on the Tenbosse.
Faced with an imperious Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) in the eventual three-up sprint in Zottegem, Westra and his Astana teammate Alexey Lutsenko would have to settle for second and third on the stage, but their efforts had essentially reduced the overall picture to a three-way battle.
Westra set out on Thursday afternoon’s traditional closing time trial around De Panne in third place overall, with 12 seconds to make up on Kristoff over the 14.2-kilometre course. Memories of those narrow defeats to Sebastien Rosseler (2011) and Sylvain Chavanel (2012) weighed heavily as he warmed up following the morning stage.
“I’ve been so close to victory here a few times, I’ve been second a few times,” Westra said. “I was just so nervous for the last three hours, the palms of my hands were sweating. I was thinking ‘I hope I’m not second again today.’”
At the opening check point, it looked as though Kristoff would just about hold off the Dutchman and claim his second successive overall victory, but Westra was not to be denied this time out. He made up the necessary ground over the back end of the course to place fourth on the stage, three seconds down on winner Maciej Bodnar (Tinkoff), but 25 ahead of Kristoff.
“When I passed the finish line, I had pain all over: the feeling was not good, but the time was not bad,” Westra smiled. “I lost three seconds on the stage but I gained on Kristoff. In the end, the race was good.”
Part of an Astana team boasting Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru and a supporting cast of star names, opportunities to ride as a leader are few and far between for Westra and he was determined the make the most of the rare chance in De Panne.
“Astana is a big team so I know that when you get a chance to win a race, you must take it,” he said. “They gave me the chance here and I took it 200 per cent. On the first stage, I showed that I was ready, and after that, the team worked 200 per cent for me to bring me in this position to the time trial.”
Westra will line out at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, but despite his showing at the Three Days De Panne – and, in particular, his effort on the tough opening leg – he was adamant that Lars Boom’s leadership of the Astana team at the Ronde was absolute.
“Sunday is a totally different race to here and it’s all for Lars Boom. He is our leader and we’ll try to do everything to bring him in to a good position,” Westra said, later adding that a strong showing in De Panne was by no means a reliable indicator for the Tour of Flanders.
“The distance isn’t a problem for me, I train every day. But I had the same question three or four years ago when I rode well here: people said, ‘Ah Lieuwe Westra, he can do a good Tour of Flanders.’ And then I was not good. I’m realistic. Lars is the leader and Lars has shown before he can ride very well in those kinds of races. I know my place in the team.”