When Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) reminded journalists in his winner's press conference of La Flèche Wallonne that his win last year had been his first big Classics victory, it was hard not to do a double-take.
[DON'T RUN] Peter Sagan drops out of Fleche Wallonne to save his legs for Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Such has been Alaphilippe's domination of a hefty chunk of the Classics world since then, that it is hard to remember that prior to April 2018, a breakthrough for the Frenchman in the one-day world was yet to come.
"Last year was my first big victory, ahead of a great champion [Alejandro Valverde - ed.], and it confirmed to me that this course was one that suited me the best," Alaphilippe told reporters afterwards.
"This year, I had all the pressure, but I've been on the podium of this race ever since I started. So I'm very pleased that I won because it was tougher than last year to get the victory."
Prior to April 2018, Alaphilippe had taken podium finishes in Monuments like Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia, wins in stages of Paris-Nice and the Vuelta and the overall of the Tour of California.
There was no question, though, of where he had been most consistent: two runners-up spots in La Fleche Wallonne in 2015 and 2016 - in 2017 he didn't take part - indicated that the midweek Ardennes Classic could become Alaphilippe's talisman race. As it has done in 2018 when victory on the Mur de Huy ushered in a period of one-day success that has seen him conquer the Clásica San Sebastián, Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo.
Even after a setback like the País Vasco crash and a disappointment like in Amstel Gold, when Fleche Wallonne rocketed up the Mur de Huy for a third and last time, Alaphilippe was where he needed to be to go for the win. But Alaphilippe denied that after his second straight win that a long reign in command of the Mur de Huy was automatically in the offing for him.
"I don't think so, I'm just concentrating on what I can do, pleased with the way we took responsibility ever since the race started. Winning like this was a superb result, and today was very hard. I had to push really hard to get Fugslang back [the Dane had launched a powerful attack mid-way up the Mur de Huy - ed.], but that gives my win an even better flavour."
Alaphilippe denied, though, that there was any sense of there being a battle for revenge after last Sunday's setback at Amstel Gold, where he and Fuglsang were swept up by a chase group and overtaken by Mathieu Van Der Poel (Corendon-Circus) in the final kilometre.
"Not at all, I've simply been concentrating on Fleche and what the team had to do," he said. "Of course, there's a sense of disappointment, of course, it's frustrating, but I was pleased about how I felt overall. We did a good race there. But now it's Fleche Wallone and that's what counts for me."
It's been a long first half of the season for Alaphilippe, with Liege-Bastogne-Liege bringing down the curtain on a series of racing that began back in the Vuelta a San Juan. But as he says, he's been "up there in all the objectives I've had" - and this was his eighth win of the season and for Deceuninck, their 25th of the 2019 year, as well as putting their Classics victory tally into double figures.
In terms of Fleche Wallonne's history, you hardly have to look far for back-to-back wins, but prior to Valverde's series of four from 2014-2017, though, winning consecutively is a rare achievement. The previous successive series of victories belong to Moreno Argentin back in 1990 and 1991.
After paying tribute to his team, with a special mention for Enric Mas and Dries Devenyns, Alaphilippe pointed out that, "With the wind, it was a very nervous race, and exhausting in the front, particularly to be up front so much. Riders were moving around and I had to change my bike and had to get back on. But my team then it came down the climb, and I did the right effort at the right place and at the right time."
He also had praise for Van Der Poel, saying that wins like Amstel last Sunday were good for Dutch cycling and that it was "good to have riders of such high class for me to fight. I'm pleased he won at Amstel, even if I'd have liked to have won myself."
But he also pointed out that Van Der Poel was now on holiday whilst he continues to race on, with Liège, the biggest Ardennes prize of them all, the next on his list before he finally gets to take a break. And after Fleche 2019 and the whole of the preceding 12 months, there can be little doubt who is the absolute favourite for La Doyenne, too.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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