Dan Martin: Maybe I've got to wait for Valverde to retire to win Fleche Wallonne

La Fleche Wallonne runner-up Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) made a strong defence for maintaining the race’s current format despite Alejandro Valverde’s continuing domination of the mid-week Classic.

La Flèche Wallonne is currently the only major European Classic featuring a hill-top finish - as has been the case for the 81-year-old race since 1984 - and in recent years has had three ascents of the Mur de Huy. For the last four years, Valverde has been the victor on the Mur de Huy - or the Chemin des Chapelles (Path of the Chapels), as it’s also locally known. But that, according to Martin, is not a reason for changing the race’s format.

"I don’t think you should alter a race route just so one rider shouldn’t win," argued Martin, who was already third and second in the race in 2016 and 2014. "This is a race which has a lot of character and this [the Mur] is its trademark. Races lose their identity if they are changed too much."

As Martin pointed out, barring the Mur the route has been changed every year a little - this time the climbs were more concentrated in the final hour "and that made it open to more attacks." Quick-Step, together with BMC Racing, were the two teams that probed Movistar’s defences the hardest, with Bob Jungels (Quick-Step) staying away until the early part of the Mur.

"It was a course that provoked more attacks, and that was what we tried to do. But winning on the Mur has an art to it, and even if there was a bunch sprint at the top, Alejandro would still probably win it," Martin argued.

So what would it take for Martin to beat Valverde on the Mur, the Irishman was asked?

"I have to wait until he retires," he joked, before adding, more seriously, "I hope I can beat him one day before that happens."

"But it was a strange race today, not a normal Fleche Wallonne at all, with a strong headwind," Martin pointed out. Combined with the climbs being concentrated in the last 60 kilometres, the peloton was bigger than usual by the time the race reached its toughest segment "and that made for a very nervous finish. A lot of riders were attacking in the last 30 kilometres."

Valverde, though, remained the reference point, which is why, Martin explained, Quick-Step Floors sent Jungels up the road  "to try and tire everybody out. I know I need to get a jump on Alejandro in order to be able to beat him, but with a headwind it was always going to be difficult."

Martin added that the headwind extended to the Mur itself, something that Valverde later claimed was not so clear, but in either case, he recognised that despite being on the podium without winning for a third time - "and I can’t be happy about that" - at the end of the day, there was no shame to finishing second behind a rider like Valverde.

"The second last time we went over the Mur, I could feel a headwind and that was to my advantage," Martin argued. "I knew you had to stay calm, because it would be possible to come back on a rider if they attacked too early on the Mur.

"But catching Alejandro was always going to be difficult. I tried to get on his wheel, but I just couldn’t quite manage it."

Even so, another more important opportunity to beat Valverde will come on Sunday, when Dan Martin will be once again leading Quick-Step Floors. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a harder, less predictable race which Martin has won, too, back in 2013 and where Valverde’s track record in la Doyenne is - with three victories to his name - less solid than in Fleche Wallonne. Another potentially intriguing battle, then, is just around the corner. 

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