After four straight years of domination of La Flèche Wallonne by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Julian Alaphilippe's defeat of the Spaniard on the Mur de Huy on Wednesday had a real feel of an end of an era.
Not since Tom Boonen in 2004-2007 at E3 Harelbeke has a rider remained unbeaten in a major race for so long as Valverde in Flèche Wallonne. And if by some twist of fate, Alaphilippe were to stop racing tomorrow, his defeat of Valverde on the Mur de Huy will be seen by many as the standout moment of his career.
Victory in La Flèche Wallonne is the first Classic win of Alaphilippe's career, too, as well as France's first in the race since Laurent Jalabert back in 1997. But as Alaphilippe was quick to admit afterwards, it was beating Valverde, dubbed the King of the Mur de Huy since 2014, that made it even more exceptional.
"I've been twice on the podium here before today and the first time [in 2015] was a surprise, and the second the confirmation of my earlier result," Alaphilippe said.
"But I really needed to win a big race, and to do that and get my first Flèche Wallonne ahead of Valverde is something very special."
Explaining his lack of celebrations as he crossed the line, Alaphilippe revealed that "I didn't think I had won. I thought [Vincenzo] Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) was still ahead after breaking away. Then my cousin, who was waiting on the line, told me I had got it."
Although his teammate Philippe Gilbert won the Flèche Wallonne in 2011, after his strong performance in the Amstel Gold Race, Alaphilippe said that he had been designated sole leader for the race. However, the first step was to make Valverde as vulnerable as possible, although Quick-Step Floors were far from alone in thinking that.
It could have proved a double-edged sword, given more than one team would see any sign of weakness in Valverde as an opportunity for their own riders. "The plan was to win with me, and that wasn't easy, because everybody knew that Valverde could win this race for the sixth time. For sure everybody wanted to put Movistar under pressure," Alaphilippe recognised.
Quick-Step had a slightly easier ride than others to the foot of the Mur thanks to the presence of Max Schachmann in the breakaway with Nibali. Once he was reeled in, it was up to Alaphilippe to deliver.
"We played it smart with Max, Pieter Serry made a big effort on the Cote de Cherave and then Bob Jungels put me in a great position for the foot of the last kilometre. [Jelle] Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal) pushed really hard on the climb, then I made a great effort to get past him and go for the line. Nobody got past me."
But for all his doubts about whether Nibali was still ahead of not, Valverde nor Vanendert said that they thought that Alaphilippe had been beatable on the Mur de Huy. "I glanced back at Alaphilippe, saw the look in his eyes and saw what he was like and I knew what would happen next," Vanendert recounted later.
"I went 100 per cent on the last S bend of the climb, maybe if I had left my move for later I'd have finished second, but I don't think I'd have won."
At the same time, Quick-Step Floors were most on top of their game en route to the Mur de Huy. "Our tactics were simple," explained Alaphilippe. "We always had somebody ahead, always had a teammate with me, and then it was my legs, my day. I can't express how happy I am at winning here, ahead of Alejandro Valverde, who's the best rider in the world."
For Quick-Step, the victory in La Flèche Wallonne represents a continuation of their almost non-stop run of Classics success this spring, their 10th since Niki Terpstra opened their one-day account in 2018 in Le Samyn in late February.
And for Alaphilippe, speculation over whether he can repeat his defeat of Valverde in the far tougher arena of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday will be higher than ever before. Regardless of what happens in La Doyenne, beating Valverde 'the unbeatable' in the Flèche Wallonne is a massive achievement in its own right.
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