Garmin-Sharp directeur sportif Erik Van Lancker won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in a Panasonic jersey back in 1990 and, 23 years later, he was able to re-live a little of the pleasure of winning when Dan Martin triumphed in ‘La Doyenne.’
There’s no doubt that having a DS in the team talk who has won the race relatively recently helps convince riders that he knows what he is talking about (“I think the riders have a little more respect, I think the riders say, ‘OK, this guy won the race, so he understands’ but when you speak together to discuss the tactics it helps”).
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The way the race panned out in the final climbs of Colonster and Saint-Nicolas was, as Van Lancker put it “Unbelievable! Finally we made a plan that worked out perfectly. On the reconnaissance ride on Friday we started on the Stockeu climb and rode in to the finish to check out the new climb at Colonster.
The plan was that Hesjedal had to attack here because it was a good climb for him – not too steep, quite long and somewhere where he could use a big gear. It was a perfect plan for Ryder and he carried it out and that was good for Dan because he was able to stay in the wheels and follow the guys. Plus after La Redoute we still had six riders with two leaders and Dan is normally fast and Ryder not so fast in the sprint, so our tactic worked.”
There was, as always, a slice of luck for Garmin-Sharp – though you could say that it was as lucky for everyone else too. The mild, dry weather and in particular the lack of wind helped the team. As assistant directeur sportif Johnny Weltz noted, “Ryder isn’t always the best when it comes to staying near the front and conserving energy.
“He’s strong, of course, but if you get caught in the back of the bunch going over some climbs and have to make an effort to bridge gaps between groups, that costs energy. And of course Ryder can do that, but it sometimes means when he gets to the finale he has used more energy than he needed to. This year, even on the exposed climbs, there wasn’t a lot of wind, so that wasn’t so much of an issue.”
There were 60 riders, more or less, in the final 25km of the race which meant that there were more variables and possible winners but, when it came down to the crunch, the strongest riders made it the front.
The final climbs of Liege-Bastogne-Liege don’t really allow any ‘sit-in sprinter’ type tactics and Garmin wasn’t the only team that was well represented in the finale – look at Movistar for example. “I think the fact that the weather and wind wasn’t so bad today meant that it wasn’t such a hard race as it might have been,” explained Van Lancker, who caught himself calling Liege ‘not so hard’ and added, laughing, “relatively speaking!”
Eric Van Lancker wins Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1990 (photo: Graham Watson)
Van Lancker has been the DS for all of the Ardennes races and knew that Martin was in fine form. “At the Amstel Dan was good but it’s not really his sort of race and of course he crashed in the finale. At the Fleche Wallonne he was really good and the problem there was that he had a flat tyre 15km before the line and he had to fight to get back to the front when the race was really on. Maybe that was what cost him the podium – not the win – but he lost third by about one centimetre and if he hadn’t had to fight his way back to the front, well I think a podium was possible.”
There were all manner of ‘anniversaries’ after the finish at Liege. Obviously the last Irishman to win the race before Martin was Sean Kelly in 1989, but there was another little anecdote.
“This morning (Sunday) Dan said to me, ‘The first time Sean Kelly won the Tour of Catalunya he also won Liege and I said, ‘OK, then it’s clear, now you have to win Liege’ and he did it! It’s the small things that work on your mind in the run up to a race like this.
“One year in my career I was second behind Moreno Argentin in the Tour of Lombardy (1987) and I lost by centimetres. So the whole winter I said to myself, ‘Well, come on, if I can do that in Lombardy I can win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, so all winter I used that as motivation, it was a small thing, but it helped.”
And, on such fine points of motivation, Classic wins are forged.