Sometimes a third place feels like first, and for Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) - on a day when two riders were way ahead of the field - claiming his first Ardennes Classics podium at La Fleche Wallonne constituted a kind of victory in itself.
In a now-lengthy career, the Italian allrounder has clinched victories in hilly classics as tough as the GP Montreal, but his best placing in the Ardennes so far was seventh in Amstel Gold back in 2017, as well as eighth in the Fleche Wallonne in the same year. He also placed ninth in the midweek Classic back in 2012.
Albeit six seconds behind the leading duo, Ulissi stayed behind Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) as the Pole opened up the hostilities on the Mur de Huy then faded a little when Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) attacked, followed by winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step). But he then came past Kwiatkowski, kept his pace steady on the upper slopes of the Mur and fended off a fast-moving Bjorg Lambrecht (Lotto-Soudal) in the closing metres.
"I can't say I've got any regrets," Ulissi said afterwards. "This was a great opportunity, and Fuglsang and Alaphlippe were impossible to beat. I did my best, but they were the ones fighting for the victory."
Ulissi started his Fleche Wallonne as a team worker with a special mission to get into breaks. He then found himself promoted to UAE's leader halfway through when Dan Martin, a triple podium finisher, started to suffer.
"Dan was the leader for our team, and I was supposed to get in a big break in the last hour of the race, which I did," Ulissi, part of an attack that formed after the second assault of three on the Mur de Huy, recounted afterwards.
"But Dan wasn't on a good day. They told me about that over the radio, and I tried to save energy and get back into contention again."
Martin finally abandoned. However, Ulissi said his brief spell as top contender in UAE Emirates in the Ardennes had begun and ended in the 2019 Fleche Wallonne.
"This changes nothing," he said emphatically. "Dan has won Liège-Bastogne-Liège before and been on the podium, too, and we have huge respect for his abilities. On Sunday, it'll all be for Dan."
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