Race Report – Grand Prix de Wallonie 2016

Crossing the line in the late summer air, Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin took the first win of his 2016 season after an exhilarating final climb in the Grand Prix de Wallonie.  Freewheeling’s pick of the race, Czech Petr Vakoc of Etixx-Quickstep, came in a close second, with Jerome Baugnies of Wanty-Groupe Gobert completing the podium.

Freewheeling takes you through the breakaways, crashes, climbs and chases of the 56th edition of the Wallonian classic….

With an individual stage win at the 2014 Tour de France, a stint in the yellow jersey at the same race, and a strong season in 2015, this year was set to be a good one for French rider Tony Gallopin.  The 28-year-old had been a mainstay of the top ten finishers in a host of prestigious races throughout the last two years, and looked set to build upon the successes and add to his impressive palmarès going into the new season.   Prior to the Grand Prix de Wallonie, Gallopin’s season hadn’t gone quite according to plan, with a number of somewhat frustrating near misses taking the place of overall victories, including a solid second place at the Clasica San Sebastian and third at Brabantse Pijl.

The Grand Prix de Wallonie was the Frenchman’s first win of the 2016 season, showing the rider coming into form in time for the European Championships this Sunday.  Although the field for this years’ Wallonian adventure was arguably less strong than in previous years, the hilly course led to a fascinating finish after 205km of hard racing, with Gallopin only just managing to hold on for victory after a valiant chase from Etixx-Quickstep’s Petr Vakoc.

This year the course featured seven tough climbs, four of which came within the last 40km of the race.  To begin with, the route was fairly flat, allowing the riders to set an aggressive pace straight from the off.  Four riders went clear of the bunch in the opening kilometre, being reeled back in soon after.  From there, the race headed into the Ardennes, with a trio of climbs loaded into the front end of the parcours.  The first of these, Cote de Saint-Hubert, came after 31km, followed by Cote de Saint-Remacle, and Cote de Webomont at almost 60km.  The middle section of the race was fairly flat, as riders anticipated the four short, sharp climbs coming up within the final 40 kilometres.

Numerous attacks were attempted in the early stages of the race, before a group of six riders managed to go clear, including Johan Le Bon of FDJ and Stef Van Zummeran of Belgian team Verandas Willems.  The break managed to establish a gap of 24 seconds before Axel Flet of Veranclassic-AGO attacked from the front of the peloton.  Flet was unable to reach the six leading riders, as the peloton ramped up the speed and started to chase.  Various attacks were launched with the breakaway now 30 seconds ahead, although none were successful until John Hemroulle (Color Code), Samuel Leroux (Veranclassic-AGO) and Gregory Habeaux (Wallonie-Bruxelles) reached the leading group with 170km remaining, the gap having grown to 4 minutes 20 seconds.

The nine man breakaway managed to extend their lead to almost 6 minutes before Lotto-Soudal started putting in big turns at the front of the peloton, aided by riders from Etixx-Quickstep.  With the gap gradually being closed and down to 2 minutes, the leading group approached the four remaining climbs as Samuel Leroux was dropped.  The race approached the 30km to go mark, with Etixx-Quickstep taking control of the peloton and bringing the gap down to under a minute.  With the chasers accelerating hard, a crash split the bunch as Benoit Jarrier of Fortureo-Vital Concept and Jonathan Fumeaux of IAM Cycling got swept up in the chaos and hit the tarmac.

With only 20 seconds remaining of their advantage, the breakaway tackled the slopes of the second of the four final climbs, Côte de Lustin.  Johan Le Bon sat up at the foot of the slope, as Habeaux accelerated, dropping riders in the attempt.  Pouilly steadily rode across the gap to rejoin Habeaux at the head of the race, leaving three clear groups on the road.  Pieter Weening of Roompot-Oranje attacked from the peloton, joined by Christian Mager of Stölting.  The pair rode up to the chase group before pulling away and bridging the gap to Habeaux and Pouilly.  Seizing the advantage, Weening stepped up the pace; dropping his three companions to lead the race alone.

On the penultimate climb, Etixx-Quickstep managed to bring the race together, mopping up what remained of the breakaway and chase groups.  Tony Gallopin and Jan Bakelants took control in a group of seven riders on the climb of Tierre aux Pierres, stretching the gap to just under half a minute.  Wanty-Groupe Gobert chased hard, closing the gap to 15 seconds at the foot of the final climb, Citadel Namur.

With time and road running out, numerous attacks were tried.  Gallopin, riding on the wheel of Bakelants, jumped with 1km to go, immediately opening up a 5 second advantage.  Vakoc made a move as the road flattened out in the final few metres of the race.  Hesitating on a corner, Vakoc seemed unsure of how to come around Gallopin in the front.  The Czech rider came within a whisker of taking the race for Etixx-Quickstep, Gallopin however held him off to cross the line in first place with a time of 5:06:17.  Vakoc was awarded the same time in second place, with Jerome Baugnies of Wanty-Groupe Gobert completing the podium for the 2016 Grand Prix de Wallonie.  Lotto-Soudal take the race for the second year in a row – will 2017 see a hat-trick in Wallonia?

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