World champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) admitted he was suffering at the Amstel Gold Race before wise words from team-mate Gianni Meersman spurred him to victory.
Kwiatkowski stayed cool when defending champion Philippe Gilbert attacked on the final ascent of the Cauberg, recovering over the summit with an elite chasing group to set up a bunch sprint.
And Polish ace Kwiatkowski deployed a decisive sprint to celebrate his first Classics victory and his first road race win as world champion.
Having also helped his team climb to the top of the UCI WorldTour rankings at the expense of Team Sky, Kwiatkowski was pleased to have helped the squad bounce back from a winless cobbled Classics campaign.
“I’m really thankful that my team-mates were so amazing today,” he said. “I was always in the top 20 or 25 positions. I could relax the whole day.
“Of course I was suffering as well in a race with so many climbs. The second-to-last time up the Cauberg I said to Gianni Meersman ‘you know, I’m not feeling so good today.’ But he said to me straight away that everyone is suffering with 34 climbs at this race and I have to make it.
“That gave me a lot of motivation before the last time up the Cauberg. I’m really thankful they believed in me until the last moment.
“It’s really special to get this win at the opening race of the Ardennes Classics. We had some bad luck with riders like Tom Boonen being injured before the Cobbled Classics.
“The whole team was happy about the podium at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix because we tried our best at those races. But here we had the same kind of effort and I am now at the top of the podium.
“We got the success we were trying so hard for. For sure, winning Amstel Gold Race in the Rainbow Jersey means a lot to both me and the team, and it is another example of how strong we are as a collective.”
Gilbert looked set to take a fourth victory in the race when he burst clear on the Cauberg, following an earlier acceleration from Brabantse Pijl-winning team-mate Ben Hermans.
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) found Gilbert’s wheel but the two were unable to pull far enough away from the chasing pack.
With the likes of Matthews and last year’s world number one Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) for company, the odds seemed stacked against Kwiatkowski as he started the sprint from the back of the front group.
Matthews, Valverde and Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing) were all well-placed for victory but Kwiatkowski found a gap and his long-range sprint proved decisive, beating Valverde by a bike length with Australian Matthews third.
“I built up really well for this race, and winning here, which was my goal, I cannot describe my emotions,” Kwiatkowski added.
“It’s really big for me at this point in my career. For sure I will celebrate with my teammates. They were key to helping me get this win.”
Amstel Gold Race 2015 – result
1) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Etixx-QuickStep – 6.31.49hrs
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar – ST
3) Michael Matthews (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE
4) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre-Merida
5) Greg van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing
6) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Soudal
7) Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) – Etixx-QuickStep
8) Enrico Gasparotto (ITA) – Wanty-Groupe Gobert
9) Maciej Paterski (POL) – CCC Sprandi Polkowice
10) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing