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ProTour standings Valverde claims first major classic atop the Mur de...
Fabian Wegmann looking less relaxed than Bettini
Alejandro Valverde is a rarity in cycling: he can climb like a mountain goat and sprint like a track cyclist. The Spaniard gave a glimpse of his talents when he arrived on the scene as a fresh-faced 21 year-old for Kelme in 2002. Four years later and at the top of one of the steepest sections of road in the world, the now 25 year-old showcased that amazing versatility to claim his first major classic in the 70th edition of La Flèche Wallonne.
"My main focus was to win this race, nothing else," said Valverde, "but there were a lot of other guys aiming for the same goal. It was a very fast race, but I had very good legs. I tried to wait as long as possible as the CSC train constantly brought everything back. When [David] Etxebarria attacked, I just followed him, and when I saw that Samuel Sanchez and Karsten Kroon were coming back to us, I accelerated at my maximum.
"It's only the second time I've competed at this race. The 'Mur' pleased me [the first time] and I wanted to come back here; yesterday, we did a reconnaissance ride with the team, and I liked it even more!" he joked.
One not in so jovial a mood was second-placed Samuel Sanchez from Euskaltel-Euskadi, looking particularly unhappy at the line, before saying his legs just about exploded trying to follow Valverde's wheel. Nevertheless, the Basque declared he would come back to win this race one day.
While the Mur de Huy may have decided the outcome in its typical 'last man standing' scenario, it was in fact the penultimate climb of the Côte de Ahin eleven kilometres before that created the winning selection. Matthias Kessler's savage acceleration, taking Igor Astarloa (Barloworld), Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic) and Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) for company marked the first definitive split. Shortly afterwards, another eight or so more made it across to make a dirty dozen with all the usual suspects.
Third-placed Karsten Kroon (Team CSC) was one of those suspects, who indicated to Cyclingnews before the start in Charleroi he had come to the Ardennes for a specific reason: "I'm hoping to go for the win today. But in the end, the Mur de Huy is such a hard finish, it's everybody for himself, and the strongest rider will win there - and I hope that will be me," he said.
Unfortunately for him, the Dutchman fell two places short, but against an unbeatable Valverde and super Sanchez, he can walk away with confidence in time for a race he knows very well indeed: Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"It just felt great; guys like Basso and Sastre were doing the work for me today - can you imagine that?" smiled Kroon, still looking a little perplexed at the honour. "They brought me into an ideal position at the foot of the Mur de Huy, a type of finish that suits me very well. On every climb, I just set myself a pace which allowed me not to go into the red.
"After the penultimate climb, I didn't need to panic because some riders were dropped. When Valverde, Bettini, Kessler and Astarloa attacked, Basso set a high pace to bring them all back. That way, they lost a lot of energy going into the final sprint uphill. At that moment, I was still feeling very fresh."
"Until today, I've actually only done this race once before - but I know Liège," he forewarned, "and I know I can do well. My morale is extremely high, so I can get close there as well."
Kroon's fourth-placed team-mate and last Sunday's Amstel champion, Fränk Schleck, was his usual aggressive self during today's outing in the Belgian Ardennes. And like Kroon, the Luxembourger provided confirmation that Team CSC's success this spring has been no fluke, and he too will go to 'La Doyenne' in the form of his life. Equally, defending champion Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) has nothing to be ashamed of. Despite his focus on the upcoming Giro d'Italia, the 'Killer from Spoltore' was part of the final move, but didn't quite have the last bit of oomph in a finale that simply rewards the rider with the best legs.
From sprint finishes at the Vuelta a España to a memorable mountain stage victory at last year's Tour de France, along with his world championship silver medal in Madrid last year, Valverde can do it all. But the question now begs: what will this man of many talents choose to specialise in? More classics, more stage wins? Or perhaps, just perhaps, overall victory in this year's Tour de France...
Responded Valverde: "My team manager was convinced that I could do it [today]. Last year, I already finished second at the world championships in Madrid - now I know that he's right: I should combine both, Classics and a Grand Tour.
"The program of this year is very different compared to last year. Last year, I was already at 100 percent in the early season at Mallorca. So at the Classics, I was already over my best form. We will have to see if I'm able to reach my best form again in the Tour de France, but first, there's another important race on Sunday."
Following clear blood tests for the 28 riders from the QuickStep, Davitamon-Lotto, Team Milram and Lampre – Fondital teams this morning, they and 165 others lined out in sunny conditions for the start of the 70th Flèche Wallonne. There were two late withdrawals from the race, Manuele Mori (Saunier Duval) and Frank Vandenbroucke (Unibet) both missing from the départ in Charleroi.
VDB’s place was taken up by Erwin Thijs, giving Unibet their full complement of riders, but Phonak were left a man down when Koos Moerenhout crashed before the official drop of the flag, briefly losing consciousness but not breaking any bones.
The first attack of the day was by Daniel Musiol (Milram), but no move succeeded in staying clear for any length of time until José Luis Arrieta (Ag2R Prevoyance) and Frédéric Finot (Française Des Jeux) powered away after 30 kilometres. Despite the delay of a puncture by Finot, the two continued to pile on their advantage. They were 4’25 clear of the Danilo Di Luca-led peloton at the top of the first ascent of the Mur de Huy (65.5 km), then reached their maximum lead of 7’35 by the same point one lap later (95 km).
However a pursuit by Milram and then the Discovery Channel team saw the lead drop to 4'08 with 94 kms to go. Past winner Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Wim van Huffel (Davitamon) had both pulled out of the race by this point, struck down by stomach problems.
Two kilometres later a group containing Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel), Andriy Grivko (Team Milram), Marcus Fothen (Gerolsteiner), Jörg Jaksche, Alan Davis (Liberty Seguros - Würth), Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse D’Epargne-Illes Balears), Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile), Tadej Valjavec (Lampre-Fondital) and Jens Voigt (CSC) set off in pursuit. However, although this move was eventually reeled in by the peloton, Kessler had flown the coop by that point and, with 87 kilometres to go, he was just 1’20 back.
The peloton was becoming more active. Two kilometres later, it had hauled back the German. A succession of attacks then further reduced the advantage of Arrieta and Finot, including a short effort by former Italian national champion Salvatore Commesso (Lampre-Fondital). With 78 kilometres to go their move had come to an end, prompting a jump six kilometres later by Joost Posthuma (Rabobank). The Dutchman got 15 seconds but by the start of the Cote de Pailhe (69 km) he was caught by Matej Mugerli (Liquigas) and Voigt. These were reeled in, as was Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel), but when Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Phonak rider Alex Moos struck out 63 kilometres from the finish, they finally succeeded in getting some daylight on the bunch.
Despite the efforts of riders such as Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas), David Etxebarria (Liberty Seguros – Würth) and others to get across, the leading duo continued to preserve their advantage. After hovering between 15 and 25 seconds clear for several kilometres, they started to pull further away and with 50 kilometres to go, they were just under a minute clear. The gap then rose to 1’19 ten kilometres later and stayed around that point for another 10 clicks, until a big attack by Peter Lüttenberger (CSC) on the Côte de Bohissau sparked off aggression by others such as Paolo Bettini (Quick Step – Innergetic), 2003 winner Igor Astarloa (Barloworld), and a general acceleration by the peloton.
The efforts by Bettini, Astarloa, Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Frank Schleck, Karsten Kroon (Team CSC), Di Luca, Kessler, Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and several others were beginning to take their toll. With 28 kilometres to go the leaders were just 39 seconds clear of Koldo Gil Perez (Saunier Duval), who had scooted off the front of the 50-rider peloton. This lead continued to ebb under the pressure of Juan Manuel Garate and Serge Baguet, the Spanish and Belgian national champions driving the pace for their teammate Bettini, and once onto the Côte de Ahin, Moos cracked and slipped backwards. Freire soldiered on but he too succumbed on the climb, being passed by the splintering, surging front group with 12 kilometres to go.
Kessler (T-Mobile) then put in a serious acceleration, jumping away with Astarloa for company. Bettini quickly grabbed their wheels but overbalanced and drifted off the road, just about avoiding running into a parked car. Despite the time lost, he was about to get back up to the leading two, as was Alejandro Valverde. Then, with 10 kilometres to go, these were joined by approximately a dozen others, who each began jumping around in a determined effort to get clear.
Valverde attacked, taking Kessler and Astarloa with him, but chasing efforts by Basso and others got them back. Valverde tried again, though, dragging a seven man group clear. Also present were Di Luca, Schleck, Bettini, Sinkewitz, Etxebarria (Liberty) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), while Basso was amongst those who had slipped back. However he, Kroon, Rodriguez (Caisse d'Epargne), Marzoli (Lampre), Bertagnolli (Cofidis), Astarloa, Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Gil and Leukemans (Davitamon) were able to catch on with four kilometres to go. The latter wasted no time in surging clear, accelerating away at an impressive pace and carrying a few seconds' advantage onto the climb.
It looked promising, but the ferocious Mur de Huy proved far too steep. Sanchez flew across to him and then the former world champion Igor Astarloa bridged and went clear. It looked like he was on course to repeat his 2003 win but he dramatically cracked near the top, the Spaniard being passed by Etxebarria, Sanchez, Valverde and Kroon. Valverde then kicked a few metres later and powered away to take an impressive victory, leaving the minor spoils for the others to scrap over.
The Tour de France may be still two and a half months away, but like Floyd Landis, Alexandre Vinokourov and Ivan Basso, Valverde has shown the motivation and condition to win before July.