Blazin' Saddles: Six of the best wins from the 2019 cycling season
Comeback victories, wins from the breakaway, majestic solo exploits, crash-defying heroics, underdogs biting back, and the victory that never was – they're all here in our round-up of best wins from the past 10 months.
Lutsenko's crash-course victory in Tirreno-Adriatico
When Astana's Alexey Lutsenko soloed clear of a group of GC favourites with 38km remaining of Stage 4, few, not least the Kazakh champion himself, could have predicted what was to come.
After crossing through Fossombrone ahead of two finishing circuits, Lutsenko completed the first ascent of the tough I Cappuccini climb with a 50 second lead over the chasers.
Pushing things on the descent, the 26-year-old overcooked a bend and was forced to ride over a ditch and up a leafy bank. If he managed to stay clipped into the pedals, albeit going over the bars and onto his right shoulder, that was not the case on the second descent less than half an hour later.
Lutsenko had gone over the top with a precarious lead of 14 seconds as Primoz Roglic rallied behind. And with just over one kilometre to go, the leader skidded on another tight bend, crashing to the concrete and tearing his shorts and knuckles. He held on but was caught by Roglic, Adam Yates and teammate Jakob Fuglsang with 600 metres remaining.
Most riders in that situation would have thrown in the towel or perhaps led-out a teammate. But buoyed by the adrenaline coursing through his veins following those two tumbles, Lutsenko dug deep to win the sprint and take an emotional win – before promptly breaking down in tears.
"Only in the movies!" Carlton Kirby roared into the microphone, having moments earlier, following Lutsenko's second crash, fallen foul of the commentator's curse by declaring, "That's the end of his day, I'm afraid."
Ye of little faith. But after a rousing finale, a shaken and stirred Kirby was soon shouting at the top of his voice: "Oh my goodness, he's only gone and done it!" And who are we to disagree that the bloodied Lutsenko's win was "one of those stages you are never going to forget". The Kazakh proved as resilient as Wall Street to bouncing back from crashes…
Van der Poel's comeback in Amstel Gold Race
While were talking about commentators, how about this from Rob Hatch (for the host broadcast) in the closing moments of the opening race of the so-called Ardennes week:
" Look at Van der Poel going from behind! Look at Van der Poel going on the left-hand side! Mathieu van der Poel's going to do it! Mathieu van der Poel! This is incredible! I have never, ever seen anything like this in my life. Mathieu van der Poel has done it!"
In the background, you could actually hear someone crying. Probably a Dutch commentator. After all, as Hatch said, this was "Roy of the Rovers stuff" as the Netherlands got their first home winner in Amstel Gold since 2001, when Van der Poel was just six years old.
If you're thinking Hatch was hamming it up, then over on Eurosport Declan Quigley was in the hot-seat to deliver his own bombastic verdict:
" That is the most extraordinary conclusion to a bike race I have ever seen… the greatest ambush you are ever likely to see in a bike race."
Never mind inclusion in a list of the best wins of 2019, one news source, with only a modicum of hyperbole, declared the whole thing "The Race of the Century". It certainly didn't look that way with 20km remaining when Julian Alaphilippe and Jakob Fuglsang held a 55-second gap on the main pack and looked to be running away with it.
Van der Poel had actually already shuffled the pack with a daring attack with 45km remaining. Having been pegged back by Fuglsang's Astana teammate Gorka Izagirre, the Dutchman sat back as Deceuninck-QuickStep paved the way for Alaphilippe through Philippe Gilbert (himself an outstanding winner of Paris-Roubaix just weeks earlier).
With 5km remaining, the leading duo were still out ahead with Van der Poel now trailing in a fourth group well over a minute back. But the rangy Dutchman never gave up, burying himself as he led his passengers back into contention as Alaphilippe and Fuglsang played cat and mouse.
Poland's Michal Kwiatkowski joined the leaders on the home straight before Van der Poel, with Simon Clarke in his wheel, surged past the trio in the final 50 metres to take a victory even he couldn't comprehend. No wonder he fell to the floor and stayed there, his head in his hands, for what seemed like an eternity.
Netherlands' Mathieu van der Poel reacts lying on the ground after winning the 54th edition of the Amstel Gold Race in Vilt on April 21, 2019. (Photo by Marcel van Hoorn / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo credit should read MARCEL VAN HOORN/AFP/Getty IGetty Images
Benedetti holds on for Stage 12 of the Giro d'Italia
"All hail, Caesar!" Why stop a winning formula? Those were the memorable words of Rob Hatch, back in the Eurosport commentary box, when 31-year-old Cesare Benedetti picked up his first pro win. And what a day for it: Stage 12 of his home tour over a course paying homage to the legendary Fausto Coppi.
Also looking to follow in the Cuneo-to-Pinerelo tyre tracks of Il Campionissimo were fellow Italians Damiano Caruso, Gianluca Brambilla and Eros Capecchi. But it was the experienced Benedetti – a man more used leading out than leading over – who crossed the line first to end an unlikely career-long duck with panache.
But Benedetti's win was so much more than beating three Italians and Ireland's Eddie Dunbar after 158km in the saddle. After a tough opening half of the Giro, in which Benedetti worked hard to help Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Pascal Ackermann to two wins and four top-five finishes, Benedetti got himself in a rare break which found itself 12 minutes clear of the pack.
In the words of Hatch, he'd already done "one of the rides of the day" simply getting back into the break after being distanced on the only categorised climb of the day 35km from the finish. When he was dropped again on the punchy rise to the hilltop town of San Maurizio with 2.5km to go, it looked like curtains for Caesar.
But after a daredevil descent he fought back with Caruso to join Dunbar, Brambilla and Capecchi with just 500 metres remaining, before outkicking his rivals for a fairy tale finish. "A more popular win, you could not find," said Hatch.
De Gendt degendts Stage 8 of the Tour
Taking on all three Grand Tours this season, there was never any real doubt that we would see Thomas De Gendt on the podium one day in Italy, France or Spain. In the event, the Belgian breakaway specialist left his mark in Stage 8 of the Tour on a magnificent day in the Massif Central that also saw Julian Alaphilippe move back into yellow and Geraint Thomas crash.
De Gendt was part of a four-man break on a 200km parcours with 3,800m of elevation gain. Well, of course he was. With 15km to go, the gap was down to just a minute as the Lotto livewire approached the final climb with Italy's Alessandro De Marchi on the front. When he dropped the Italian, De Gendt still had everything to do – especially with fresher French duo Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot giving chance behind.
In the end, De Gendt held on for victory by six slender seconds in Saint-Etienne to notch his 15th – and probably best – career win from a breakaway, before summarising his day in true De Gendtian fashion: "From 70km I started to believe in the victory. Still, it hurts, it hurts so much." There's certainly no doubting Thomas.
Evenepoel soloes to glory in San Sebastian
With fellow youngsters Mathieu van der Poel, Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogacar stealing much of the limelight during the season, Remco Evenepoel, the youngest of this stellar new generation, reminded everyone of his class with a maiden WorldTour win in the Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian in August.
The 19-year-old Belgian attacked with 20km remaining and kept the entire peloton at bay. Having dropped the Latvian Toms Skujins of Trek-Segafredo on the final climb, Evenepoel somehow managed to maintain a 40-second lead over the rampaging pack – giving a taste, perhaps, of the utter carnage he could inflict upon his classics rivals in the years to come.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep tyro became the third youngest rider in history to win a classic, and the youngest to win a WorldTour event since, erm, Pogacar three months previously in California. The future's bright – the present's not bad, either.
Angel delight in Stage 5 of the La Vuelta
Everyone loves a good underdog – and you can't get more underdog than the bespectacled, gawky figure of Angel Madrazo. Often the butt of jokes for his close resemblance to the McLovin' character from the film Superbad, magnificent Madrazo turned the tables on his critics with a supergood display in Stage 5 of the Vuelta as he took his first ever WorldTour win at the age of 31.
Approaching the final climb of the day, the Alto de Javalambre, with a 10-minute gap on the main field and in a three-man break that also included Dutch teammate Jetse Bol, the cards were very much in the hands of the wildcard Burgos-BH team.
Cue (almost) the most needless act of self-sabotage when the team's directeur sportif drove into the back wheel of Madrazo and almost knocked him off his bike…
Perhaps fearing another assault, Madrazo subsequently yo-yoed in and out of contention on the final 11km climb, getting dropped more times than yours truly on a club ride. Bol certainly looked like the most likely rider in purple shorts to take things to Jose Herrada of Cofidis.
But when Madrazo, in polka dots, fought back for what seemed like the umpteenth time and joined the leaders with 700 metres to go, he clearly sensed the most improbable of wins. Like a man possessed, Madrazo surged clear of his companions to take the biggest scalp of his (and his pro-continental team's) career, forcing Rob Hatch to celebrate what he described as "the story of the year". Oh, Rob – had you already dumped Mathieu on the scrapheap?
In any case, Madrazo was McLovin' it as he led home a Burgos-BH one-two, while Hatch was still "struggling to believe what I've just seen". Wins like this don't often happen in Grand Tours that aren't sponsored by Carlsberg, but when they do, they're mighty special.
The win that never was: Egan Bernal in Stage 19 of the Tour
And finally, a majestic move which washed away Julian Alaphilippe's yellow jersey hopes and should have seen Egan Bernal celebrate a maiden Tour title with a stupendous stage win in the Alps.
But after the Colombian threw down the hammer on the Col d'Iseran to blow his rivals – and Ineos teammate Geraint Thomas – away just two days from Paris, the heavens opened to cause chaos on the world's biggest bike race.
With hail blocking the road to Tignes and landslides cascading down the side of the neighbouring mountains, ASO were forced to neutralise the stage and take the final times for GC on the summit of the Iseran. That gave Bernal the time he needed to wrest the maillot jaune from Alaphillipe's shoulders and become the youngest post-War Tour winner – but not the stage scalp he deserved.
Although the 22-year-old all but secured the Tour that day, the real winner of Stage 19 was climate change; a stark reminder of how a sport with a questionable carbon footprint could be adversely affected in the years that come.