Vincenzo Nibali won Milan-San Remo in thrilling style last month when he wasn't even Bahrain-Merida's number one leader, and the same situation nearly came to pass on Wednesday at La Flèche Wallonne as the Italian helped prize open the usually predictable race.
In recent years the mid-week Ardennes Classic has largely been a waiting game ahead of the final frantic dash up the Mur de Huy, but this year the action started on the first of three ascents, and soon after Nibali - aiming to make the race hard to set up teammate Enrico Gasparotto - found himself in a dangerous breakaway that survived all the way to the foot of the final climb.
After being involved in a large group that went clear on the Côte d'Ereffe inside 50km to go, Nibali was then part of a smaller six-man group that formed on the subsequent Côte de Cherave. Working together they held off the chasing pack and, with 48 seconds and 15km remaining, it looked like they might just pull off something spectacular, but the gap started to come down once other teams assisted Movistar with the chase.
"Almost 50 kilometres full gas, a time trial," Nibali said outside his team bus, according to Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. "It was always going to be a long way to the finish - I knew that. We always kept the pace very high, but behind us the group never gave up.
"The tactics were good because Gasparotto, much more explosive than me, would be there for the finish. The idea was to try to make the race hard, which we succeeded in doing. Twenty seconds at the foot of the Mur is enough and also not enough.
"Here, after some particularly cold months, we encountered the first real hot weather of the season and that had an impact. We suffered a little out there."
In the end, the breakaway group split up on the approach to the Mur in the final few kilometres. While Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott) and Max Schachmann (Quick-Step Floors) went clear, Nibali lost the wheel and, after a chase with Tanel Kangert (Astana) was reabsorbed into the bunch as they hit the Mur de Huy.
"There was a bend to the right, with a traffic divider. It was the point where [Luis Angel] Maté had crashed on the previous lap," Nibali explained. "I broke and took the bend on the inside, while Haig came down like a missile - he jumped and stole a few metres. Then it was hard to get back because it was a headwind."
At the very least, Nibali enjoyed a decent work-out ahead of Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the final big objective of the first part of his season before he turns his attentions to preparing for the Tour de France.
"We all went all in," he said. "The speed was always high. In the end we were producing numbers you'd see on a Tour de France stage. I think my normalised power was 310 watts - a hell of a lot."
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