The Dutch rider was well positioned on the late climbs to follow an attack, and took the win from a group of four leaders
The Dutchman had appeared to be Sky’s leader by the way he’d been protected towards the end of the race, and delivered them their much sought after big Classics win.
On the Côte de Saint-Nicolas some selections were made: Vincenzo Nibali‘s chances ended and Romain Bardet (AG2R) showed his potential, but it was Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and Diego Rosa (Astana) who got away from the reduced leading group.
The two leaders couldn’t make it stick and were reeled back in with 5km to go. Rosa stayed on the front and drove the pace, keeping himself in position for the new cobbled climb.
Hitting the Rue Nainot, a 600 metre cobbled climb with an average gradient of 10%, Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) moved off the front. Following him were Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing) and Poels.
The group of four did not appear to be working efficiently together but were still away as they passed under the red kite.
Cat and mouse racing got underway, until Poels launched with 200 metres to go. After such a long race in very testing conditions, the sprint appeared to almost go in slow motion but Poels proved the strongest as he held off the others to take the win.
Earlier in the day, the obligatory breakaway group went away early on and consisted of eight riders: Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), Paolo Tiralongo (Astana), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Argon 18), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing), Jeremy Roy (FDJ), Vegard Stake Laengen (IAM Cycling).
Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie) went away on his own from the main peloton and tried to chase the leaders, who by that time had split into two smaller groups.
All this took place under variable weather, with very localised patches of heavy rain, sleet and at times snow. From one climb to the next, riders were going from dry roads and the threat of blue skies to heavy rain and drenched tarmac.
This was after the race had already been re-routed as a result of settling snow on some of the early roads.
Voeckler’s fun ended when the peloton came back to him on La Redoute, one of the best known climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
With their team leader Alejandro Valverde the outright favourite for victory, Movistar did much of the day’s pace setting. The added benefit of riding hard on the front all day was the improved chance of staying warm in the cold conditions.
We caught up with Poels earlier this year to hear about the knocks he’s had during his career
With 25km to go Etixx-Quick Step came to the front of the peloton and the pace increased. Around the same time, Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) was involved in a crash. He was back on his feet but did not look comfortable.
De Marchi and Edet stayed away until 23.3km to go, when the Etixx led bunch caught, but didn’t pass, them on a steady descent.
Tosh van der Sande (Lotto-Soudal) took a turn on the front, despite his team leader Tony Gallopin abandoning earlier in the race.
After the peloton had been riding tempo for a while, Carlos Betancur (Movistar) stretched his legs with 18.1km to go. This move freed up his teammates of any obligation to set the pace, and put pressure other teams to work for their leaders.
The weather got involved again with 17km to go: the riders pushing against almost horizontal sleet.
With Betancur back in the bunch, Astana had a go at stringing things out. Etixx were alive to it this time and followed the move of Andriy Grivko, who dangled off the front but never really got too far away.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) showed at the front with 9.5km to go but his move got nowhere and lasted little more that a kilometre. In mind of the final result this may have been a softener for Poels rather than an outright attack for victory.
From there it was attack and chase racing until the late climbs, where the bunch was whittled down for the finale.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2016, 253km
1. Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky in 6-24-29
2. Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-GreenEdge
3. Rui Costa (Por) Lampre-Merida at same time
4. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) BMC Racing Team at 4 secs
5. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha at 9 secs
6. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale at 11 secs
7. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff at 12 secs
8. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha
9. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek Segafredo
10. Diego Rosa (Ita) Astana at same time