Alejandro Valverde shrugged off the pressure of his status as outstanding pre-race favourite to claim his third triumph in a decade at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. And just like last Wednesday’s win at Flèche Wallone, the Spanish veteran made no errors whatsoever en route to the sixth Ardennes Classics victory of his career.
Throughout the 253-kilometre race, Valverde and Movistar played a very calculating game, knowing that with one Ardennes victory already in the bag, the pressure was on his rivals. First Europcar, then Astana and finally Katusha and Etixx-QuickStep laid down much of the pace on the front, with Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) doing the spadework to reel in a dangerous late break with Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) as the race hit the foot of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas.
Equally, Valverde himself refused to let himself be drawn into any of the battles on the Roche-aux-Faucons or the Saint-Nicolas. Instead, the Spanish veteran conserved as much energy as possible and shadowed the most dangerous moves. Even when Valverde was handed, as top favourite, the responsibility of heading the bunch on the final climb to Ans, his pace was nowhere near as sustained as on when he shut down the attacks on the first three-quarters of the Mur de Huy on Wednesday.
That tactic had certain inherent risks, as Dani Moreno (Katusha) showed when he burst clear in the last kilometre. But as the 35-year-old Valverde said later, keeping a cool head and calculating his distance – 600 metres – "allowed me to get back up to Dani again. And I always kept a little bit of strength back [a 'little bullet', as Valverde called it in Spanish] so I could go for it in the sprint afterwards.
"That was a really hard moment, I suffered a lot to get back to Moreno. But I knew I had to get him. Everybody had placed the responsibility for controlling the race on my shoulders, but I knew what I was going to have to do to win.
"I started as the big favourite, I knew all the other guys were watching me, but I knew that I could do something just the same. Second in Amstel, first in Flèche, first in Liege, it's been an amazing week."
Asked if he had been paying special attention to Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep), given that the young Frenchman had already finished second in Flèche Wallonne and dragged the group up to Valverde's back wheel when he got across to Moreno, Valverde said: "I was looking ahead more, and I was worried about Dani. I'm sure, though, that Julian is going to be a real force in the Classics in the future."
Valverde's teammate Nairo Quintana was caught up in the crash before the Redoute, but team sources told Cyclingnews that the Colombian, who finished 83rd, was not injured. "He did very well all the way through that crash, and I'm sure he'll be a force to be reckoned with in the Tour," Valverde said.
The Spaniard's back-to-back victories this week also propels him the top spot in the WorldTour rankings, which he won last year, ahead of longstanding leader Richie Porte (Team Sky).
"The WorldTour is not an objective in itself, but I knew that if I won today then I would take the lead,” Valverde said, "and that's good. It's more by fighting for my own goals that I do well in the WorldTour, too."
Valverde is now one of just six riders, the most recent being Moreno Argentin, to have won Liege-Bastogne-Liege three or more times, but he refused to be drawn into the comparisons game. "I'm very proud to have won here, but it's up to you guys [the journalists] to do that."
As well as being the only Spanish winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Valverde is the first rider to win Flèche and Liège in the same week since Philippe Gilbert in 2011. However, unlike Gilbert, Amstel Gold Race, which the Belgian has won three times, remains the one Ardennes Classic that Valverde has yet to capture. He placed second behind Michal Kwiatkowski last Sunday, which ultimately denied him a famous hat-trick.
"I'd have like to have got that one too, but I'm not going to complain," Valverde said. "Kwiatkowski won and congratulations to him. Maybe I could have raced it a little differently in the final part of Amstel Gold but I'm not going to chew that over. For me, with the results I've got, it's been a great week."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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