Movistar have insisted that Alejandro Valverde is under no pressure to take his fourth consecutive win in la Flèche Wallonne race despite being the overwhelming favourite for the mid-week Ardennes Classic.
From a historical angle, with a win in 2006 and three more in 2015 to 2017, Valverde’s record-breaking run of success in la Flèche Wallonne automatically makes the Spaniard the reference point for this year’s edition. Furthemore, after Philippe Gilbert’s injuries forced the Quick-Step Floors rider to pull out and Joaquim Rodriguez retired at the end of 2016, the only other previous Flèche winner in the pack this year is Dani Moreno - who triumphed on the Mur de Huy in 2013. But the Spanish climber will be racing for Valverde as part of a strong Movistar line-up.
On top of that, with nine wins this season, the most recent in the Vuelta al País Vasco, Valverde is clearly in the spring form of his life, too.
That’s despite the Spaniard failing to make much of an impact in the Amstel Gold Race, where the 36-year-old missed the key break of seven. Movistar, in their defence, did place team-mate Jose Joaquin Rojas in the move, and, as Valverde had told Cyclingnews before Sunday, the new Amstel route was not as much to his liking as when the Dutch Classic finished on the Cauberg.
In contrast with Amstel, Movistar are convinced Valverde will be in the thick of the action on Wednesday right up to the finish.
“He’s in good form, but that’s to be expected,” Movistar sports director Jose Luis Arrieta told Cyclingnews on Tuesday afternoon. “With Alejandro, we always know, it’s one of two: if he’s not going well, he’s going really well.”
Every year since 2015, in fact the local print media has headlined their Fleche previews along the lines of ‘Who can beat Valverde?’ and presumably come Wednesday morning there will be no change there. And for Arrieta, rather than Valverde needing to live up to expectations of another win, the heat will be on the other favourites to try - for once - to knock Valverde off his throne on the summit of the Mur de Huy.
“Pressure?” Arrieta asked rhetorically. “What kind of pressure could Alejandro be under, when he’s won the last four editions? If anybody can take this race calmly, it’s Alejandro. We can just see what comes up, how the race develops. For sure, he’s the key favourite and he’ll be up there in the action."
Analysing Sunday’s defeat, Arrieta explained that Valverde “waited for Kwiatkowski to make to a move and then when he tried to get across with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) it was too late. There were a lot of people ahead with a big interest in keeping the move in the break and obviously nobody wanted to let Alejandro back into the game. That’s racing.”
The Movistar team for la Fleche Wallonne - which includes up-and-coming Catalan racer Marc Soler, as well as Moreno, GP Rioja winner Rory Sutherland and Colombia’s Carlos Betancur - remains identical to Amstel Gold and will, barring illness or injury, be the same in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Valverde will take a break after the Ardennes Classics to build up for the Tour, “which is the same route as it’s been barring last year, where he was preparing for the Giro d’Italia. This year he’ll go back to the Tour and then the Vuelta.” First, though, Valverde will be looking to shine as brightly as ever in the Belgian Ardennes