There was growing talk amongst the cycling community that Pat McQuaid would cap a wonderful weekend for the Irish by resigning as UCI President on Monday.
The Irish journalist David Walsh – former feller of Lance Armstrong and current guest press attaché at Team Sky – led the calls for his countryman’s head, claiming Dan Martin’s magnificent Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory was “encouraging for the sport” and that – should McQuaid resign – “you might start feeling optimistic again.”
“Now I’ve won the biggest classic of the year, clean, it’s an incredible feeling,” said an ecstatic Martin after ending Ireland’s 21-year wait for a victory in the Classics.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is not only the biggest and oldest of the Spring Classics – it’s also, notoriously, the Monument which showcases more dirty laundry than the aftermath of the annual Welsh Bog Snorkelling World Championships.
Just look at the list of winners since 2003: Tyler Hamilton, Davide Rebellin, Alexandre Vinokourov (twice), Alejandro Valverde (twice), and Danilo Di Luca have all erred to the dark side. Of the previous eight winners, only Andy Schleck, Philippe Gilbert, and Maxim Iglinskiy have not sat out a large chunk of their career through a doping ban (although in the case of a magnanimous Schleck, he’s sat out the best part of two years since his big rival Alberto Contador got retrospectively snared back in 2011).
Flanked by the tanned, chiselled, and photogenic Spaniards Joaquim Rodriguez and Valverde on the Liège podium on Sunday, the endearingly goofy-looking Martin seemed to encapsulate a more honest and tangible side somewhat lacking in cycling in recent years. His victory was one for the everyday-man, one for the good guys, one for any professional rider who doesn’t seem both airbrushed and doped to perfection.
Martin’s victory was also entirely logical. The ungainly Irish climber has long been knocking on the door of cycling greatness, having picked up a mountain stage win on the 2011 Vuelta a España and finished fifth in last year’s Doyenne.
What’s more, his form this season has been slow-building to this moment. Martin’s overall victory in the Volta a Catalunya came after Garmin-Sharp team-mate Ryder Hesjedal buried himself for the cause in the decisive stage four – which Martin went on to win. Runner up to Martin at Catalunya was that man Rodriguez, while Stephen Roche’s nephew was unlucky to miss out on the podium at last week’s Fleche Wallonne.
Before the Doyenne, Jonthan Vaughters was predicting, on Twitter, a win for Martin on a day where “tactics and hesitation” would be key. Sean Kelly, the first and last Irishman to win Liège back in 1984 and 1989, told Saddleblaze in person before his commentary shift at Eurosport that Martin would be the one to cause an upset.
It initially looked like Hesjedal was Garmin’s Plan A, but once the Canadian was caught with 5km remaining he – in the words of Martin – laid “himself down for me, killed himself, the same as he did in Catalunya.”
When ‘Purito’ Rodriguez jumped on the final rise to the finish, Martin latched onto Michele Scarponi’s wheel before returning alongside J-Rod quicker than a performance-enhanced Lance Armstrong drumroll.
Sensing blood, Martin kicked before the final bend to ensure he could ride home solo and savour the win.
The whole of Ireland – not to mention Martin’s English birth town of Birmingham – were granted a first Irish win in a Monument since Kelly won Milan-San Remo back in 1992. Put differently: Martin delivered Ireland’s first major classics win in 107 races. That’s one hell of potato party.
Food for thought for the grumbling Belgians, whose failure to top the podium in any one Spring Classic this season translates as the host nation’s worst performance since 1918. Compare it to 2011’s near clean-sweep, where only Milan-San Remo (won by Matt Goss) evaded the greedy clutches of the voracious Belgians.
Belgium’s plight seems rather light when viewed through the prism of other faltering nations. Italy, for instance, have not picked up a Monument since Damiano Cunego won Lombardia back in 2008 – making it 24 races and counting for the Italians.
Worse still is the Dutch record – no wins in 61 Monuments since Servais Knaven rode to glory in the 2001 Paris-Roubaix.
Then there’s the French – the nation which hosts not only the world’s most famous stage race but also the legendary ‘Hell of the North’ – who are still waiting for someone to pick up where Laurent Jalabert left off in the 1997 Giro di Lombardia.
In the 79 Monuments since France last topped the podium, Kazakhstan and Australia have both taken three wins apiece, the Swiss have notched nine, while Great Britain, Sweden and Romania have all take wins. (That said, Raimondas Rumsas’s win has since been attributed to his mother-in-law).
And what of McQuaid? Well, the much-maligned UCI President did sent Vaughters a note of congratulation after his countryman’s victory. “Have to say chapeau for writing [to] me after all the nasty tussles we’ve been [through] in the last few years,” said Vaughters, with reference to his and McQuaid’s off-season penchant for Greco-Roman wrestling.
Reactions after Liege-Bastogne-Liege
“What we wanted to do today was actually be on the front foot rather than just wait and I think that’s what the guys tried to do but it didn’t come off. Fair play to Dan Martin. Rather than see what other people didn’t do I think it’s more important to see what he did do and I think he deserves all the credit for pretty much riding everybody off the wheel. The way they rode today with Hesjedal taking it on, that was textbook stuff and it was great to see Dan have such a fantastic result.” Team Sky manager David Brailsford
What he really meant: “Instead of talking about how much of a failure Tenerife has been let’s deflect things by focusing on the team who rode a better race than us.”
“I had done my attack, I had played my card.” Joaquim Rodriguez
What he really meant: “Normally when I attack on the final climb I ride away with the win. I’m not used to this situation at all. I blame it on the panda.”
“I was feeling a lot better than I thought and I’m pleased I’ve finished the first part of the season with a good performance – although my teammates weren’t just working for me, it was to set things up for any of the riders in the squad who were feeling good.” Alberto Contador
What he really meant: “I never really wanted to be here but none of the other riders were feeling any good so I had a pop. I’ve never really liked this part of the season – what’s the point of one-day races anyway?”
“I was lacking a few percentage points in what was a really tough race. And it’s those few percentage points that always make the big difference.” Philippe Gilbert
What he really meant: “If I talk all mathematical like this about marginal gains and the like, perhaps Team Sky will rescue me from my BMC nightmare. Besides, their classics squad could do with a 90% improvement and I would make a big difference.”
“I was still able to stay with the peloton, even though I had to eat myself. All in all, the shape was there. The shape is there.” Jakob Fuglsang
What he really meant: “I’m really not sure about the standard of the Astana musettes – I think we need a better chef, to be honest. I’m still pretty fat after the off-season. I can seem to shed this extra weight.”
“Who needs pizzas when you win? We got winning pie.” Nathan Haas
What he really meant: “I’m looking forward to the Michelin star tasting menu with wine pairing that JV will treat us to tonight.”
“We’ve been riding our bikes for a while. We know. In that situation we had the numbers – it’s pretty straight forward.” Ryder Hesjedal (never one to stumble over his words)
What he really meant: “We have all been professional bike racers for a long time now and we understand how to ride. We had a numerical advantage in the finale – it’s not rocket science.”