After several podium finishes and a brief spell in the lead, the only thing missing for Team Sky sprinter Danny van Poppel in the 2017 Tour de Pologne was an actual win. And on Wednesday's crash-blighted, rain soaked finale in Rzeszow, it finally arrived.
Van Poppel's victory in Pologne came as much thanks to Team Sky's rock-solid positioning on the front of the peloton and surviving four short, Amstel Gold-like climbs as it did to his actual sprint speed.
Then there were the crashes, too. Late rainstorms turned the stage 5 finale into a skating rink, with riders going down even when taking corners at a snail's pace, as happened to Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac) on a 180-degree turn at the start of the last lap.
Van Poppel was perfectly placed at the front of the mini-peloton when it roared into the final kilometres, with two Sky teammates piloting him safely through the fiddly final city centre. Race leader Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), clearly recognising he was onto a good thing, stayed locked onto van Poppel's back wheel.
Van Poppel and his Sky escort found themselves ahead of another crash that ripped into the peloton with 1.2 kilometres to go, and which abruptly reduced the front group of sprinters and GC men from around 40 to less than a dozen.
A late move by Youcef Reguigui (Dimension Data) could have caught the Sky mini-train by surprise but instead, they resolutely ploughed on, passing the fading Algerian with about 500 metres to go. Van Poppel started the sprint from a long way out, and despite Sagan's best efforts to get back on terms, not to mention a determined charge from Orica-Scott's Luka Mezgec on his left, the young Dutchman could finally cross the line as a Tour de Pologne stage winner.
Van Poppel explained later that he had not expected the stage to end in a sprint. "It was a strange stage because we thought the break would stay away. But in fact, I was still there in a small group after the climbs.
"And then the team did a great lead-out. I went with 200 metres to go, but the roads were very slippery and my back wheel was slipping left and right. But I won and that's the most important thing for me and teammates because we've been on the podium a lot of times here already."
Van Poppel agreed it had been a dangerous finale, "and of course there were some nasty crashes here, it hadn't rained here for a while and that made it slippery. But my teammates kept me on the front and well out of danger."
He didn't even see the final big crash, or who was second, "because with the rain that was impossible. But winning was the most important thing."
The Tour de Pologne's fondness for repeat laps of a final circuit on almost all its flat stages can help the sprinters get a good impression of the finale before tackling it 'for real'. Van Poppel said the unusually wet weather made that early recon impossible on stage 5, but he could still benefit from some local knowledge.
"Because of the rain I didn't see the finish so well when we went through it the first time, but I knew it was a little bit of 'left and right'. I followed the wheel of [teammate] Lukasz Wisniowski, he's from Poland and he knows the roads here so he put me in the perfect place for the sprint," van Poppel explained.
Apart from the satisfaction of the win in itself, van Poppel, the Tour de Pologne represents something of a mini comeback following a difficult spell due to several injuries at the end of last season. "This is the first race I'm really feeling good again and I showed it. It's great that the team has that faith in me, if you look you'll see even the GC guys like Wout Poels and Diego Rosa are pulling for me, and that shows we are a real team."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 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. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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