Two days short of his 37th birthday, Alejandro Valverde's continued his domination of the Ardennes Classics with his fourth title in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The Movistar man is now one short of the all-time record of Eddy Merckx' five victories in La Doyenne.
This year's win was more tactical than his previous shows of devastating strength: Valverde waited until the last moment to unfurl an acceleration that took him past Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and into the finishing straight ahead of the field. But it was also a Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory that was tinged with a sense of mourning for Valverde's friend and colleague, Michele Scarponi.
Visibly emotional at the finish line and all but in tears as he remembered Scarponi, Valverde's latest victory, his 11th this season and 107th of his career, was one that was dedicated to the person who has been in everybody's thoughts this weekend.
"This victory is dedicated exclusively to him and his family, after what happened to Michele everybody is in a state of shock," Valverde said later. "It's been a very important loss, he was an excellent person, a very happy person, and I had a great friendship with him, too.
"When I heard yesterday about what had happened, I suffered a lot, it really hurt, and I was always certain that if I won, the prize money would go to his family. From here I'm sending them a very big hug."
Valverde said that Scarponi's death had not made him think of retiring sooner, "because there are dangers but it will always be like that. From above, I'm sure he's telling us we should continue racing, and I'm sure today he gave me a push to try and fight on for the victory."
Valverde said that the race itself had been hard fought, principally because the other teams made sure Movistar bore all of the responsibility for keeping the race together for a long period of time. That made it harder to bring back the morning break of eight, with the last rider, Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis), only caught very late – on the Cote de Saint-Nicolas, less than ten kilometres from the finish.
"It worked out more or less as I had expected, although the teams did leave us with a lot of work to do to bring back the breaks, and I thought there would be a greater degree of collaboration. But when we pulled off the front [with about two hours left to race], Sky immediately began working, too. It was difficult to bring back the break, they opened up a big lead [13 minutes] and there were some really tough riders in it.
"My team, though, did a brilliant job of controlling everything, to the point where I only really had to make a move in the last 500 metres."
Valverde's next target of drawing equal with Eddy Merckx's five wins is steadily getting more probable. "It's something that I still feel is a dream, very hard to do, but I'm closer than other riders." Valverde is now also just one Ardennes Classic short of Merckx's total of 10. But if the Spaniard – now equal with Moreno Argentin on four Liège-Bastogne-Liège wins and therefore one of three top performers ever in La Doyenne – sees Merckx as the reference point in terms of the future, in the current peloton, there is only one consistent reference point in the Ardennes Classics: Valverde himself.
It's now reached the point that having said up to Saturday that 2017 was his best spring since he turned pro - with a second victory in the Volta a Catalunya, a fifth title in the Ruta del Sol, a first win in the Vuelta al País Vasco, and a fifth victory in Flèche Wallonne - Valverde now agreed that 2017 "is my best ever season, my best ever year."
"I could go on holiday tomorrow now and be satisfied. 11 wins this year so far, and I wouldn't know which one pleases me the most. What I do know, though, is that none of it would have been possible without my team support, too, they've been there for me all the way through."
Valverde will now take a break from racing before returning in the Criterium du Dauphiné as part of his build-up for the Tour de France, where he will be working as a super-domestique for Nairo Quintana. After that Valverde will face his next major personal goal of the season, the Vuelta a España.
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