A gutsy series of late attacks by Cannondale-Drapac in Liège-Bastogne-Liège saw the team finally defeated in the last kilometre, but the American squad could leave the Classics season with their collective heads held high.
Few teams were able to break free of what proved to be a ferociously highly pace in the second half of the 258-kilometre Classic. But Cannondale-Drapac - who took a memorable Classics win here with Dan Martin back in 2013 - began firing riders up the road on the Cote de Saint Nicolas.
Davide Villella roared up the climb, passing earlier attacker Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), and then Davide Formolo unleashed a stunning final move that took the young pro - appropriately enough - through Liège's 'little Italy' corner and onto the final ascent of Ans.
It was only when Dan Martin (Quick Step Floors) stormed out of the pack that Formolo cracked and was sucked back into the main peloton. In a sign of their collective strength, Woods finally brought home a ninth place, Rigoberto Uran claimed 21st, Formolo 23rd and Villella 39th.
"Michael [Woods] and Villella both went on the [second last classified climb of the] Roche aux Faucons," commented Cannondale- Drapac sports director Tom Southam to Cyclingnews, "but that was a starting point, our plan was always to go all the way through to the final."
"Then Villella went again on the Saint-Nicolas and Formolo went over the top with a really nice attack."
Southam conceded that Valverde was head and shoulders above the rest of the field, though, saying "even before he caught Dan Martin [Quick Step Floors] he could have put his hands in the air. Huge respect to Movistar today, for riding so hard early on and really controlling things."
Movistar's domination meant that attacking after the initial break had gone was extremely difficult, "because there was such a high pace. But the thing is, we knew that in a sprint finish Formolo's not going to beat Valverde. So to have any kind of a chance, he had to go before."
"I saw that there was a bit of hesitation by the bunch at the top of the Saint Nicolas," Formolo said via the team. "I felt good and so I said: OK. All in! I'll take a risk to finish alone; everything or nothing.
"I got away and then I was looking for the last corner to the left, pushing to get there. The problem was that someone had hit my gears on the La Redoute climb and so I had to push a big gear all the way up the final climb.
"This is just my second Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I can only thank the team because they let me do this race."
Formolo is now looking forward to the Giro d'Italia.
"When you have a good performance, you believe in what you can do and the team starts to believe in you. We'll take it step by step, take it easy and see how my Giro goes this year."
Explaining their strategy to Cyclingnews, Southam added, "We had Michael, Formolo and Rigo' Uran to go in the finale, they had to move in those positions. Michael had to go with the first moves, Formolo with the second, Rigo at the finish. But then as more and more, it became a slow-moving race, that played in our favour. We had more guys there, more guys we could use.
"It was a really, really strong team effort, and it would have been nice to finish it off with a podium. But this is Liège-Bastogne-Liège, man, it's not like you just go out there. And we've been working for this for a long time. We haven't won a big one in a while, but it's not like we're not trying. It's going to come."
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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