Alejandro Valverde celebrated his 41st birthday on Sunday by racing Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the 15th time but his rivals weren't in the present-giving mood and the Movistar rider was shut out of the podium positions from the five-man leading group.
Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) added his name to the history books as the winner of La Doyenne alongside Valverde's four entries, narrowly defeating world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quickstep) while David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) came around Valverde to take the last of the spoils.
Valverde first won Liège-Bastogne-Liège two days before his 26th birthday, out-sprinting long-retired riders Paolo Bettini and Damiano Cunego. His second victory came in 2008 when he beat Davide Rebellin - who is still racing at age 49 - and Fränk Schleck. He bested a younger Alaphilippe in 2015 with Joaquim Rodriguez in third and took his most recent win in La Doyenne in 2017 ahead of Dan Martin and Michał Kwiatkowski.
On Sunday, Valverde found himself leading out the sprint into the new finish in the centre of Liège much earlier than he might have wanted.
"I was maybe left all responsibility on my shoulders for the sprint and just kept the lead for as far as I could go," Valverde said. "Of course I'd have liked to make the podium, and winning would have been even better, but we must accept this result as it is and feel happy."
Valverde, second in the Vuelta a España in 2019, struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic-hit 2020 season and wavered between calling it quits after 2021 - with the Tokyo Olympic Games a major target - or continuing on with a new contract for the 2022 season. He went winless last year for the first time since he sat out the 2011 season after being banned for his involvement in Operacion Puerto.
The Movistar Team continued to believe in the Spaniard this year and it paid off with his first victory since stage 7 of the 2019 Vuelta coming at the GP Miguel Indurain earlier this month. After a seventh overall in the Itzulia Basque Country and third on two stages, he started adding to his Ardennes Classics record with fifth at Amstel Gold Race and a podium in Flèche Wallonne.
"I think we've done a good job, staying with the top contenders and fighting for the win until the very last meters," Valverde said of the team's performance in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. "I want to thank, and congratulate, the whole team for their job: they've really been there at all times, both in the pursuit of the early break and the late moves, Verona giving me a good hand in the end – I was able to join the selection at the Roche [-aux-Faucons]."
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