Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) showed he has the ability of one day winning a spring classic in the Ardennes week by finishing a close second behind winner Enrico Gasparotto (Liquigas-Cannondale) in the 2012 edition of the Amstel Gold Race. Beating uphill sprint specialists like Sagan and former winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) came as a surprise to many but not to Vanendert.
"I've never said I wasn't explosive. I'm not quite as explosive on flat roads but uphill it's different, especially after more than 250 km. I think that if you beat men like Sagan and Gilbert, and finish so close to Gasparotto, then you didn't do a bad job.
With this result Vanendert claims the team leadership in the remaining Ardennes Classics, although he realizes that he's not the natural-born leader like Philippe Gilbert.
"I figured I was able to do this but being a team leader is more than riding results. It's also about how to deal with a team. There are a lot of different characters in the team and I'm not someone who knocks on the table straight away and tells how we're going to do it. Once you deliver the performances it's easier to get the team along with you, not by knocking on the table. I think I proved that I've got the capabilities and I think it'll automatically become that the team will believe in my abilities a bit more. It's not to put Jurgen [Van den Broeck] on a step below me. I think he'll automatically help me. He'll feel that by helping me he comes more to fruition."
Coming into the Amstel Gold Race, Lotto-Belisol had three leaders due to the departure of Gilbert last season. Due to the financial limits of the team they didn't attract a new top gun for the Ardennes and Vanendert didn't mind.
"I've got this chance now and it's up to me to grab it. If I don't, someone else will, or then someone else might appear next year. Then I might end up in the same role as last year, not that I mind that work. I'm 27 years-old and hopefully I have a lot of good years ahead of me so now I have to make the best of it."
In the past the Amstel Gold Race was the race that suited Vanendert the least, which is promising for his results during the two remaining Ardennes races. "The results from the last few years show that those races suit me better. It would be nice and I'll do everything I can to achieve it," Vanendert said.
Though being disappointed that he didn't win, Vanendert hadn't expected to ride so strongly in the finale.
"On the Keutenberg [penultimate climb] I started believing in it. When I looked around everybody was on their limit and I had something left," he said. During the race Vanendert's role changed from being one of the spearheads into being the sole leader of the Belgian team. It happened through natural selection, as Vanendert describes. "Jurgen crashed [on the Bemelerberg at 58km from the finish] so I didn't see him anymore. Gianni helped me perfectly in the finale … until it was up to me to do it, which was on the Kruisberg [at 20km from the finish]. I wasn't perfectly positioned – about thirtieth - but luckily I had a bit more in my tank than the rest uphill to move up."
That extra notch uphill was something Vanendert worked hard for, it turned out. The Belgian started his build-up towards the Classics a long time ago. He didn't bother about the races and even his somewhat poor performance in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco last week was part of the plan. He abandoned the race to build-up for the Ardennes Classics week during the fifth stage.
"I already started my build-up for these races in November. You can see it in my results. I've never achieved anything until these races. In February and March I did a lot of work during training, even before the Basque Country I did training blocks of seven hours. That's why I wasn't good and had to abandon. It's paying off now."