Fresh from his excellent performance in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leòn, where he won two stages and the overall, Movistar management are quietly confident of Alejandro Valverde’s chances of yet more success in the Ardennes Classics. That’s even if this season the Spanish veteran has been strongly focused on making his Giro d’Italia debut in May.
As a triple victor of both La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the defending champion in both, it almost goes without saying that Valverde is the default favourite for both races. That’s despite not having raced in Amstel Gold this last weekend and - barring bursts of strong racing in Andalucía early in the season and again in Castilla y León - a relatively quiet spring.
For Valverde, there is much at stake this week in Belgium. Should he win La Flèche Wallonne, he would become the all-time record holder for victories in the mid-week Classic. A triumph in Liège-Bastogne-Liège would enable the Spaniard to move within one win of Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of five in La Doyenne. Furthermore, with three first places [2006, 2008 and 2015], two seconds [2007 and 2014], and a third  place in his palmarès in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a top-three result would put him on an equal footing with Merckx in terms of the record for podium finishes.
However, Valverde is building towards the Giro d’Italia, too, and when he discussed the Ardennes Classics with Cyclingnews in February, he recognised that “they are going to be different for me" this year.
“Rather than being in top shape I don’t know if I’ll be there at 100 per cent, because I’ve got the Giro d’Italia in May," he said. "You’ve got to be so strong to win those races. I think while I’ll be good, I don’t know if I’ll be good enough to win them.”
Following Valverde’s strong rides in Spain over this weekend, though, Movistar are upbeat about his chances for the upcoming races, but warn that the Ardennes Classics are very different kinds of challenges to the Spanish stage race.
“Doing so well in Castilla y León is really good for his morale, and it’s a good sign for all of the races that are coming up - both Flèche and Liège and the Giro d’Italia," Movistar director José Luis Arrieta tells Cyclingnews.
“He pulled out of the Tour of Flanders” - initially another spring goal - “because after racing Tirreno-Adriatico and doing a reconnaissance of the stages of the Giro d’Italia he realised he’d have to do more training focused on a good performance in May.
“He’s been to Tenerife training and then we thought coming here to Amstel Gold would be too abrupt a switch from training to racing. So he did the Clásica de Amorebieta and the Castilla y León to get some race rhythm before going on to Flèche and Liège.
“We’ll see how he goes in these Classics, but normally he manages to do them extremely well, no matter what. He’s always up there.”
In a team press release, Valverde described his Spanish victories as "the best way to return to racing", but was cautious about their implications for his chances in Flèche and Liège. “They are a totally different level to this race. They are races that I’ve been fortunate enough to win in the past on several occasions, but at the same time, I have to bear in mind that it’s getting closer and clsoer to the really big objective of the first part of the season.”
After the Ardennes Classics, Valverde will concentrate on tapering his form before heading to the Giro d’Italia start in Holland on May 6th.
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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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