Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) expressed some doubts about his chances on the eve of La Flèche Wallonne but there was a familiar outcome atop the Mur de Huy as the Frenchman bounded past Primož Roglič to claim his third victory in the race.
In five participations at Flèche, Alaphilippe has never finished lower than second, with Alejandro Valverde – third on Wednesday – the only man ever to beat him up the Mur de Huy.
Yet despite that remarkable track record, and despite the rainbow jersey on his shoulders, the world champion lined up in Charleroi as a contender among many rather than the overwhelming favourite.
"You always have doubts and for sure I wasn’t 100 per cent confident before the start today," Alaphilippe said afterwards. "But I was still very motivated because it’s a race that suits me very well even if I’m not at 100 per cent.
"I prepared this race and Liège on Sunday as objectives. It’s already very good to have won today, so whatever happens on Sunday I can be happy with my Ardennes Classics."
For the 18th consecutive year, the elite men’s race was decided on the final ascent up the Mur de Huy, but producing a prodigious power output is only half the battle on the wickedly steep climb.
Roglič, racing at La Flèche Wallonne for the first time, ripped clear of the front group with a little under 400m to go. Alaphilippe, banking on his treasury of experience, waited a few beats longer before setting off in pursuit of the Slovenian. He caught his prey just as the road began to level out in the final 100m and his momentum carried him past Roglič to claim the spoils.
"I tried to manage my effort as best I could and not go too soon, and I gauged Roglič well. I saw he was going very, very hard and I felt it wasn’t necessary to go after him straightaway. I realised that it flattened out afterwards, so I really made the maximum effort at the end and kept it going to the line," said Alaphilippe, who acknowledged that his sense of timing had been the key weapon in his armoury against an on-form Roglič.
"It wasn’t necessarily the knowledge of Mur that made the difference because we went up it three times today, so everybody saw the climb before the finish. But I think that, yes, the timing was very important."
When Alaphilippe first won La Flèche Wallonne in 2018, his then teammate Max Schachmann played a key role by attacking ahead of the Mur and leading onto the climb, which kept the pace high in the group of favourites. Mikkel Honoré performed a vaguely similar task here, depositing Alaphilippe at the head of the group of favourites before the flamme rouge and then clipping off the front to force the Frenchman’s rivals to give chace on the lower ramps on the Mur de Huy.
"I was perfectly placed. The team did great work on the approach to the last climb. Mikkel left me in the first position and then he continued his effort, which forced the other teams to lift the tempo," Alaphilippe said. "I was able to climb the Mur near the front and then it’s the legs that make the difference. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy with Roglič attacking and with Valverde on my wheel but I got there."
Alaphilippe’s victory – his second of 2021 – cements his status among the favourites for Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, though he downplayed the idea that he has a point to prove at La Doyenne after his premature celebration of victory and subsequent declassification last October.
Similarly, he gently dismissed the idea that his winning sprint against Roglič atop the Mur amounted to redemption after the Slovenian had pipped him to the line in Liège last year.
"I’m not thinking about last year; Sunday is a new edition of Liège, and everybody starts from scratch," said Alaphilippe. "I’m already very happy with my Ardennes Classics campaign."
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