Six years after he took Liège-Bastogne-Liège for a second time by outsprinting Davide Rebellin and the Schleck brothers, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has once again triumphed in an Ardennes Classic, this time with a late charge on the Mur de Huy in Flèche Wallonne.
What was a long overdue fourth win in an Ardennes Classic for the 33-year-old, though, also extends Spain's run of victories at Flèche Wallonne to three after Joaquim Rodriguez's triumph in 2012 and Dani Moreno's win in 2013, and takes Spain's total of wins in the last 11 years to five. At this rate, rather like the Alpe d’Huez being nicknamed the 'Dutch mountain', Huy could end up being re-named the "Spanish Mur."
"I was feeling really determined to do well here because I've been missing out on an Ardennes victory for a long time," said Valverde, who has now taken eight wins this season.
"More than revenge for Sunday [where he was squeezed off the podium at Amstel Gold Race by a late charge by Jelle Vanendert] I just wanted that win. Philippe Gilbert (BMC) was a lot stronger on Sunday in Amstel, so I wanted to try my luck here.
"I didn't want to get blocked in and I started the climb really, really close to the front. In the last 300 metres I was getting a bit close to the barriers and I was almost blocked in, but as soon as I saw there was a bit of a gap, I accelerated and I dropped everyone else."
Seventh in Flèche Wallonne 2013 and 46th in 2012 – when he was suffering from uneven form throughout the Ardennes on returning from suspension – Valverde's best period in the midweek hilly classic dates from early on in his career, when he took first in 2006 and second in 2007. With two Liège-Bastogne-Liège wins also to his name, this is his fourth Ardennes Classic win: for the Murcia-born rider, only the box next to Amstel Gold remains unticked.
"In Huy you have to be really well positioned to do well, it's a very different climb to the Cauberg, much harder and you can only win if you're feeling in top condition. I think I'm in better condition now than I was in 2006, and I'm very pleased about that. Every year I seem to be getting a little better and I'm really enjoying my racing.”
Flèche is regarded in some ways as a form guide for Liège-Bastogne-Liège and asked if he now considered Gilbert to be beatable in La Doyenne, Valverde answered: "it's hard to say. He was the same rider today as he was last Sunday and in one race he won, in another he lost. That's bike racing."
He began shaking his head in disagreement, though, almost before the journalist who asked whether Liège was now a straight fight between himself and Gilbert had time to finish his question.
"No, no, at Liège there will be a group of 10 to 15 riders up there, and any one of us can win. Liège is a very different race, much longer racing and with longer, tougher climbs, four to five kilometres long at times rather than these shorter ascents at Flèche. And it's not like Amstel because although the roads are narrow at times, it's so hard that it's a race where positioning is less important than raw strength. Of all of these Ardennes races, it's the one I like the most."