For another year, at least, the Mur de Huy remains Dan Martin’s white whale. The Irishman has been pursuing Flèche Wallonne since he turned professional and has drawn maddeningly close in recent years, but still the summit rejects his advances.
Sixth in 2012, fourth in 2013, second in 2014 and, for good measure, fourth last year when the Tour de France visited the Mur de Huy, Martin had to settle for third place at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, behind winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and his Etixx-QuickStep teammate Julian Alaphilippe.
A recurring feature of Martin’s efforts on the Mur over the years has been his late surge as the road begins to level out in the final 200 metres – an impressive flourish, but one born of necessity due to a habit of losing out in the frantic battle for positions at the base of the climb.
This time around, Martin negotiated the traffic at the bottom better than ever before, and was well-placed all the way up the cavernous Mur, riding almost elbow to elbow with Valverde as they passed through the raucous atmosphere of the curve named in honour of the late Claude Criquielion.
With 250 metres remaining, Martin launched his attack and it briefly appeared as though the secret of the Mur had revealed itself. In the final 100 metres, however, first Valverde and then Alaphilippe surged past, and Martin had to settle for third.
“I knew that if I wanted to win I needed to go from 250 metres,” Martin said in the press room afterwards. “I think this year I rode a lot better climb than I’ve ever done before. Other years I’ve always been coming from too far behind. This year I really rode aggressively at the bottom of the climb and that’s maybe why I lacked a bit of legs in the last 100 metres.
“But I tried to win and I went into the race only thinking about that. I went into the bottom of the climb believing I could win.”
In previous attempts, Martin had lined out as the sole leader of the Garmin team at Flèche Wallonne but this year found himself sharing leadership duties with Alaphilippe at Etixx-QuickStep. When the gradient touches 25 percent, each man must eventually fight his own corner, but Martin explained that he and Alaphilippe had looked to dovetail their efforts in a bid to thwart Valverde.
“Even though we both have the ability to win this race, we have to win it differently,” Martin said. “It depends on how the climb is ridden. That’s why we made the tactic that Julian would stay on Alejandro’s wheel and try to beat him on the line, while I would go from a little bit further. But obviously, Alejandro knows the climb and he almost read our tactics perfectly. It’s really difficult to beat him.”
How does one go about solving a problem like Alejandro? Valverde claimed a record fourth Flèche victory, and his third in a row, on Wednesday, fully a decade on from his first. A ban for his links to the blood doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes in the intervening period did little to break his stride. Five days shy of his 36th birthday, Valverde’s powers are seemingly undiminished.
“I think he was just stronger,” Martin said. “I think that’s what’s beautiful about this race but also what the fans find frustrating a little bit because maybe it’s a little bit boring because it’s basically a sprint on the final climb.”
Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège may offer more fertile terrain for the Etixx-QuickStep tandem to outmanoeuvre Valverde, though Martin, who won the race in 2013, admitted that he might be better served if the forecast for snow and plummeting temperatures does not prove accurate.
“Julian and I race really well together. We have a very good relationship off the bike too and Liège is a race where team tactics are a lot more important, so hopefully we can play off one another and bring the victory back to Etixx-QuickStep,” Martin said. “I think normally we’d be very happy [with second and third at Flèche Wallonne] but there’s that ambition in the team and we want to win.”
After one of his answers was translated into French, Martin picked up the microphone to explain himself further, lest his earlier critique of Flèche Wallonne be misinterpreted. “For me it’s a beautiful race. It’s really my favourite race, and I won’t complain about the sprint on the climb,” Martin said with the rueful smile of a man still enamoured in spite of his disappointment.
The saga of Martin and the Mur de Huy continues. Or as AJ Liebling put it when contemplating Archie Moore’s ill-starred attempt to take Rocky Marciano’s world heavyweight title in 1955: “What would ‘Moby Dick’ be if Ahab had succeeded? Just another fish story.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.