Everything coming up Valverde in 2017
Two days short of his 37th birthday, the evergreen Alejandro Valverde's title as King of the Ardennes Classics is now more secure than ever. Riders who take multiple victories in major races tend to be slated as uninventive. But for all that Valverde's run of four straight wins at Flèche Wallonne (five in total) and four victories in Liege-Bastogne-Liege is repetitive, that doesn't make the wins any easier to achieve. Nobody is unbeatable in any race, but as Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) wryly pointed out yesterday, in the case of Valverde and the Ardennes, "nobody has figured out how to do it yet."
With hindsight, it's easy, too, to criticise teams for failing to try more inventive strategies, and certainly Orica-Scott and Team Sky's willingness to work with Movistar at Flèche Wallonne in particular ultimately only increased the likelihood of another Valverde victory. But with so many Ardennes wins in his palmares, it has now got to the point that Valverde and his team can employ his stunning success rate to force their rivals' hands, as they did on Sunday.
When Movistar stopped pulling half-way through Liege-Bastogne-Liege behind a particularly tenacious early break, it was because they have the least to lose. The brutal truth is that with so much Ardennes success, other teams needed a win at Liege more, and thus they duly cranked up the pace behind the break once more, and in the process produced such a high speed that further attacks from more serious contenders were all but quelled. And as Ans drew closer and closer without any major moves until the finale, the ball, once again, moved steadily further into Valverde's court.
Valverde is already in a league of his own in La Flèche Wallonne where he now boasts two more victories than any other rider. Victory for Valverde in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, given the circumstances in which it was raced, was always going to be a bittersweet affair, but it's also brought him even closer to the Holy Grail of Eddy Merckx's all-time record of five and puts him on a level with Moreno Argentin, one of Italy's greatest ever Classics champions. He's now the first rider ever to take three 'Ardennes doubles' after 2006 and 2015; at 36 years and 363 days old, he is Liège's oldest winner; and he has already equalled his own record total of 11 wins for an entire season (in 2008 and 2014). Valverde could already go on holiday this season, as he said, but in a year where everything he touches seems to turn to gold, he's not likely to stop now. Could this be his year at the World Championships? (AF)
Martin the bridesmaid once again
How to solve a problem like Alejandro? It's a question that was already bugging Dan Martin ahead of the Ardennes Classics, but you suspect that the events of the past several days have had the Irishman cursing the fates at being born into the wrong era.
Valverde won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2008, the year Martin turned pro, and, nine years on, at the age of 36, he is showing no sign of slowing – quite the opposite, in fact. Martin was runner-up behind the Spaniard at Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday - the third time he's been on the podium behind his rival there - and the outcome was the same at Liege on Sunday, continuing a trend that has intensified this year after two close runs at the Volta a Catalunya.
Like on the final stage of that race, there was a grim sense of inevitability once Valverde set off in pursuit of Martin on the uphill drag inside the final kilometre at Liege. He quickly dropped the rest of the group of favourites and was on Martin's wheel before the final left-hander, at which point French TV commentator Laurent Jalabert chuckled and said, "he's going to pass him – no problem. He already knows he's going to win."
While question marks have hovered over Martin's positioning on the Mur de Huy, it's hard to escape the sense of resignation that he couldn't have done any more at Liege – his attack would have been a winning one in a Valverde-less field, but he was simply beaten by a stronger man.
Somewhat perversely, perhaps Martin's own chances would have been greater had, as was supposed to be the case before injuries took their toll, his own share of the QuickStep leadership been cut in three. Philippe Gilbert had been in stunning form all spring, while Julian Alaphilippe finished on the podium at Liege on his first attempt two years ago, and they would surely have combined to employ more inventive tactics that would have unsettled and exposed Valverde more than the relatively trouble-free afternoon he enjoyed on Sunday.
Martin already has two huge one-day wins to his name at Liege and Il Lombardia – where Valverde has somehow never won – but he'll surely feel his palmares could be greater. He said on Wednesday that he might need to wait until Valverde retires before he wins Fleche, and perhaps the most disconcerting part about it all is that Valverde is under contract through to the end of 2019. (PF)
Van Avermaet honours the Monuments
With eleventh place at Liege, it is clear the Belgian's peak of form is fast fading, but is that really surprising? Nearly two months ago, the defending Olympic road champion and UCI WorldTour leader was already in the thick of the action (and winning) at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, before going on take E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. That level of success justifies a rider's entire career, let alone one season.
"It will be hard to repeat this level of success in the future," Van Avermaet said on Sunday, "and at Liège, I managed to stay close to the best all the way to the foot of the last climb to Ans. I might have been able to get a few places higher, but I wouldn't have got on the podium, let alone the win. For that to happen in the future, I'd have to drop the Flemish Classics, and that's hard to conceive."
Van Avermaet will now take a break before returning to racing in the Tour of Luxembourg (May 31st - June 4th), the Tour de Suisse, Belgian National Championships and the Tour de France. For the end of the season, he will be gunning to add some rainbow stripes to those gold rings he already has on his maillot. (AF)
Matthews' best hopes of Classics success still lie in the Ardennes
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) began his northern campaign by making a return to the cobbles with a view to one day targeting the Tour of Flanders, but he ended his spring with a performance that suggests his best hopes of Classics success still lie in the Ardennes.
Fourth place in only his second appearance at Liège-Bastogne-Liège augurs well for Matthews, who entered the professional peloton in 2011 as a fast man, but proved during his time at Orica that he is a rider of many parts. His win at Montecassino during the 2014 Giro d'Italia and his fine Paris-Nice display of a year ago underlined his progression as a climber, and in that light, his presence in the leading group at the business end of a cagy edition of La Doyenne was hardly a surprise.
Although Matthews struggled on the final haul to Ans, he battled gamely and produced a fine finishing effort once the road flattened out to move up to fourth. There is, of course, a world of difference between limiting the damage on a climb like the Côte de Ans and being able to follow – or launch – the decisive move, but at 26 years of age, Matthews still has ample margin for improvement. The new finale at Amstel Gold Race also seems perfectly tailored to his strengths, even if an untimely crash hampered his challenge this year and he could only manage 10th.
Matthews' eagerness to tackle the cobbles is to be applauded – and 8th place at Gent-Wevelgem shows his potential on the terrain – but one wonders how strongly he will commit to the experiment next year when he seems to be drawing ever closer to becoming the finished article in the Ardennes. (BR)
Does the route needs changing?
The finish of this year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege was almost a carbon copy of the 2015 edition and several that went before it. In a season that has stood out for its aggressive approach to racing, Liege was notable for its lack of it. Yes, there were a few muted attempts at breaking up the order but, ultimately, the big favourites bided their time as the selection was gradually made behind. Alejandro Valverde, like a thief in the night, waited until the last possible moment before mugging the rest of the field.
It's a scenario that has played out time and again in recent years. The inclusion of the Côte de la Rue Naniot in 2016 showed just what can happen with the slightest alteration. Rather than the inevitable charge up the final rise into Ans, fans were treated to an unpredictable finale. It is curious that the organisers chose to avoid it this year after a successful debut. The removal of the final ride up the Cauberg worked well for the Amstel Gold Race, which saw Philippe Gilbert and Michal Kwiatkowski rip up the projected form book. This year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege shows that if the organisers want more of a spectacle then there needs to be a shake-up somewhere. It's not about getting a different winner but giving us a race with options, one which allows some element of suspense.
The organisers are bound by a deal with the local government to finish in Ans - which according to French newspaper Le Soir runs out after next year's edition - but perhaps they could play around with the build-up to give us something a little bit different. (SO)