Dan Martin took a Classic win after an aggressive and clever race by his Garmin team

Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday April 21, 2013

Dan Martin won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but the more complete story is that the Garmin team won it.

The American team engineered the Irishman’s victory by dominating the front of the race in the final 25 kilometres, with Ryder Hesjedal going for a long solo attack over the top of the Côte de Colonster, then putting the final drops of energy in his body into working on the front of a small group, including Martin, who bridged up to him over the final climb of the Côte de St Nicolas.

Hesjedal’s tactic was risky. The others in the group, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Carlos Betancur (Ag2r) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre), were getting a free ride to the finish. Valverde, Rodriguez and Betancur are all proven uphill sprinters. All have finished on the podium of an Ardennes Classic, while Martin’s best was fourth in last week’s Flèche Wallonne.

But the Irishman has been building up to a win like this for a couple of seasons. He was already confident of his form – the evidence for that was in his late burst up the Mur de Huy, where he covered the final 100 metres extremely fast. All he had to do was get the timing right, and his good form would do the rest.

The finishing climb of Ans is not as tough as Amstel Gold’s Cauberg, nor Flèche Wallonne’s Mur de Huy – the damage is done with the harder climbs earlier in the race – but it’s not a straightforward sprint. With a 90-degree left-hand turn 100 metres before the line, there are two races – first into the corner, then first over the line. Win the first race, and the chances are the second will happen automatically.

With a dozen-strong group, led by Astana, slowly pressing from behind, Rodriguez was the first to panic. He launched a very hard attack from the back with 1,200 metres to go, and destroyed the coherence of the group. Hesjedal was immediately finished. Scarponi tried to follow, but was clearly not moving as fast as the Spaniard.

However, Martin hadn’t given up yet. He distanced the others, then started clawing his way up to Rodriguez’s back wheel. It took 300 metres or so, but the momentum was clearly with him. The trouble was that it was too early to launch the sprint, too dangerous to come through and lead, and by sitting in, he’d risk the others coming up from behind. His uncle, Stephen Roche, suffered that fate in the 1987 race.

The crucial thing was that while Rodriguez had launched an all-out attack, Martin’s pursuit had been a steady acceleration and grind, rather than a sprint. It was hard work – Valverde and Betancur had been unable to follow – but Martin’s move had been less physically expensive than Rodriguez’s

Martin slowed and rode next to Rodriguez. Maybe something in the Spaniard’s breathing or riding style told him that victory was one, last, attack away. With just 100 metres to the final bend, Martin jumped. Rodriguez tried to match him, but his effort was a pale imitation of the force with which he’d ripped himself clear originally. He’d made his play to win La Doyenne and it had failed. Now it was Martin’s turn.

***

It was an unusual edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With the tough Côte de la Roche aux Faucons under roadworks, the organisers had to find a different way to Ans. Their solution was the new climb of the Côte de Colonster, a wide, draggy rise very different in character from the narrow, steep ascents typical of the race.

The peloton was still 60-strong when they tackled the climb. The early break had been and gone, and a series of attacks over the Redoute climb, had been contained, not without effort, by the BMC team. Once the breaks, which had never gained more than a few hundred metres’ lead, had been caught, BMC carried their effort through to the Colonster climb. Their tactics were an echo of those which they’d used to smother Flèche Wallonne just four days previously.

On the Côte de Colonster, Rui Costa (Movistar) and Sergio Henao attacked, but on such a shallow gradient, the effect was to stretch, rather than break the peloton, and they couldn’t quite build enough of a lead to make a significant break.

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) went. This time, the damage was starting to show behind him. But it still wasn’t quite enough to force a proper break.

The peloton was one attack away from letting go. And it came from Ryder Hesjedal. The Canadian dragged Contador, Henao, Igor Anton (Euskaltel), Rodriguez and Costa with him, and suddenly there was a gap, with 17 kilometres to go.

Hesjedal looked the most committed. He cajoled and nagged his fellow escapees to work together, and when they didn’t, he just took off on his own over the drag down the other side of the climb. Behind, Astana massed at the front of what was left of the peloton – of the 35 survivors, five were from the Kazakh team. Last year, they’d chased down Nibali in the final kilometres and won the race. This year, they were working for him.

Ahead, Hesjedal spent the first few kilometres of his lone attack looking over his shoulder, but with the remnants of the group going back to the peloton, it was clear it was him against everyone. He looked like he was working a little too hard, but he was moving extremely fast – he built a 20-second lead over the next seven kilometres.

However, it was an unequal battle. Hesjedal had committed himself, but his main rivals were still fighting the war by proxy, hiding behind their domestiques. A line of Astana riders kept the pressure up behind, and slowly started squeezing his lead.

The peloton definitively broke on the final significant climb, the Côte de St Nicolas. Hesjedal gamely defended his lead, and the first signs that Garmin weren’t just on a suicide mission started to show – Dan Martin started riding alongside whoever was at the front of the fast-eroding bunch up the climb. It was a clear message that anybody who went after Hesjedal would be pulling him along, too.

Betancur attacked. He was followed by Scarponi and Rodriguez, with Martin in close attendance. They were joined by Valverde, and they bridged to Hesjedal. Incredibly, at this point, they were barely 20 metres clear of Philppe Gilbert, but over the top Martin pressed forward, and the gap went out.

Martin led down the descent, then Hesjedal took over again. The race was down to six men, five if you discounted Hesjedal, who had made the transition to domestique and was haring through the streets of Ans on the front of the group, holding the chase, still led by Astana, at bay.

It was a gamble. Valverde and Rodriguez couldn’t have asked for a more convenient tactic. But Garmin had worked their own tactics to perfection and Martin had ridden the last six kilometres, over the St Nicolas, down through Ans, and up the finishing climb, like the winner-elect.

Garmin didn’t have the theoretical strength in depth of the other teams. Sky led up La Redoute with four riders in a line. BMC had five riders on the front of the bunch between La Redoute and the Côte de Colonster. Then Astana put five at the front between the Côte de Colonster and Côte de St Nicolas.

Garmin only had two riders involved in the final part of the race. But unlike the other teams, whose strength led them into the trap of riding defensively, they still had the confidence to put them off the front. In the final 16 kilometres, apart from Rodriguez’s attack, Garmin had led for every single metre of the race.

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