Four days after he racked up the latest of a succession of near misses in the Amstel Gold Race, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) showed once again that at Flèche Wallonne, not even major changes to the race route can stop the Spanish all-rounder from winning.
The much-discussed addition of the Côte de Cherave climb in the final part of the 200 kilometre Classic certainly thinned out the pack, but when the efforts really began to take a toll on the Mur de Huy, Valverde's blue-clad figure was there at the front again, poised to pounce.
The Spaniard's third victory, taken with a finely-calculated show of strength on the final kilometre of the Mur, has now placed Valverde on a level pegging with Moreno Argentin, Eddy Merckx, Marcel Kint and Davide Rebellin as the fifth rider to score a hat-trick of Flèche Wallonne wins. His is also the fourth Spanish victory in succession on the Mur de Huy, after Joaquim Rodriguez in 2012, Dani Moreno a year later and Valverde himself in 2014.
Second in Amstel Gold and now first in Flèche Wallonne, Valverde agreed that compared to 2014, his strategy had been different on the Mur de Huy, where last April he darted away from the pack with 200 metres to go. The Côte de Cherave, he argued, had made for a much calmer finale, with few attacks. His tactics this time were no less effective though, keeping the opposition under tight control with a sustained pace for most of the climb until, as he put it, "we reached the right distance," to accelerate away for victory.
"The second last climb conditioned the race, and stopped people from being so keen to attack on the last ascent," Valverde told reporters after politely wishing everybody 'buenas tardes' [Good Afternoon] as he started his press conference. "I simply laid down a steady pace at the front that would try to rein my rivals in if they attacked on the Mur and the thing was that none of them did.
"Then I went for it when we reached the right distance for me [roughly 150 metres from the line.] I knew at that point I was going to win, because I still had the spark left to turn in another acceleration."
A third victory was in the bag, and Valverde recognised that "getting a record that puts me on a level with Eddy Merckx is a great honour. It also keeps me feeling confident about my future in the sport, even though I'll be 35 on Friday." Indeed, Valverde is Flèche Wallonne's fifth oldest winner ever.
With so many crashes, Valverde highlighted that this year's Fleche Wallonne had been "the most nervous race I can remember doing, there was so much tension. I was talking to [third placed Michael] Albasini afterwards about how dangerous it had been.
"From 130 kilometres to go, there were crashes all the time, and the strange thing it was always in the front part of the peloton, in the front 30 or so."
Movistar, though, managed to keep control of events for Valverde and sent Giovanni Visconti up the road in the finale for good measure. Valverde's next goal will be a third victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. "The team will be a lot more relaxed after such a good result here and my second place in Amstel, too," he said. "And sometimes when you're more relaxed, you win more than if you’re racing nervously."
As one of the more senior members of the peloton in a year when riders from the 'older generation' of Classics specialists like Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert have all been overshadowed by the new wave of riders, Valverde denied that there was any sense of sporting revenge after losing to World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski, 10 years his junior, at Amstel.
"I was in good condition there and I got beaten but this time round it was a different story. Even if I'd won in Amstel, though, I'd have been just as motivated to win here." And presumably he will now be even more motivated to net a third victory in Liege on Sunday.
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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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