WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — If you want to put a stamp on a career, you’d surely like do it the way Luca Paolini did, grabbing a victory in the first major northern classic of — perhaps — your final season with both hands and doing it in pure hardman style, too.
In torrential rain that gave way to a slashing crosswind that gusted to 50 miles per hour and sent riders and bikes sprawling into the muddy drainage alongside the roads of Flanders and Northern France, the Italian Katusha rider won Gent-Wevelgem with the kind of patience and maturity a decade and a half in the pro peloton earns you.
“It was a really hard win because of the weather conditions,” Paolini said in a post-race press conference. “There were a lot of crashes during the race. I also crashed two times and two times I had to change my bike. … But despite these problems, I tried to take the front of the race to save energy for the final kilometers and I succeeded. It was a good ride.”
Understatement might be another thing that a 15-year career will teach you.
Paolini’s win in an edition of Gent-Wevelgem that is already destined to become legend was surely the biggest of his career, but it was not a surprise. His prowess in miserable conditions is no secret: his biggest win before Sunday was arguably his 2013 victory at a frozen Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Sunday, he said, he showed that age is no impediment if you can train well and race smart — and are lucky enough to find yourself surrounded by a dense web of personal support.
“First of all, I did a very good winter, it was a good training period for me,” he said. “I tried to do my best to do a hundred percent in the trainings, so I managed to take a great shape at the end of winter. So now I have it. I think with this victory, with this shape, I proved that even at 38 years you can be in front and win big races like Gent-Wevelgem. Maybe this victory can be an example for young riders, how it is possible to win such races.
“I want to thank first of all my family who supported me, because I’ve been away from home for a long time, and it was very difficult. I want to give a big thanks to my wife and my children, because they’re very important for me and without them I couldn’t be here. And second, I want to thank my team. It’s really, really a big family for me, and I feel very good in the team.”
For a less experienced rider the day might have gone very differently, but Paolini kept his cool after the two crashes and again late in the race when he found himself distanced by Nikki Terpstra’s (Etixx-Quick-Step) surge on the final, decisive climb of the cobbled Kemmelberg. Paolini told reporters he knew the course well enough to know not to panic on the cobbles.
“I changed bikes two times, and then on the last bike the pressure in the tires was not exactly what I wanted,” he said. “So I pushed the pedals and it wasn’t as strong as I wanted on the Kemmelberg. But I didn’t panic. I was very calm. I knew that after the Kemmelberg was another section with a little bit of climbing and I could come back in the group. So I was calm and just worked to come back.”
He drew on his experience again in the final kilometers of the race. Paolini, who said he figured he was likely not the favorite if the race came to a sprint, also managed to exploit the ambitions of his partners in the breakaway on the final windswept stretch of road from Ypres to Wevelgem. He launched a surprise attack with 6km to go, sowing confusion among the leaders, none of whom appeared willing to make the sacrifice necessary to offer a response.
“I thought how it would be in the finish, I thought maybe in a sprint I would not be so quick. So I found my chance,” Paolini told reporters. “First, I attacked with maybe half power to see how the other riders would react. And I saw that I had a little gap, so I started to work 100 percent. Finally I had maybe 10 seconds. I did full, full, full gas. I did everything in [the last] five kilometers.”
Nonetheless, despite collecting a major win in Wevelgem, Paolini told reporters his ambitions for the rest of the classics would be tempered by his role as shepherd for Katusha’s standout sprinter Alexander Kristoff. But he will ride the Giro d’Italia, he said, and expects to have a place on the Italian squad for the world championship road race in Richmond, Virginia, that could well favor his tough, savvy racing style.
Later, he added, he’ll decide whether his work as a cyclist would be finished after this season, at the close of which looms the end of his present contract with Katusha. But even at 38, Paolini told reporters, he saw little reason to hit the brakes on a career that appears to be in full blossom.
“A victory like this gives me a lot of motivation, new morale,” he said. “So we will see. Of course this year my contract is ending, but I think I fit with the team and everything will be OK, but I don’t know.”