Ahead of his debut ride at the Tour of Flanders, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) reserved judgement on whether or not it was a mistake not to have ridden De Ronde sooner. "On Sunday I'll either tell you I came here too late, or that it's not a race for me," the world champion said on Friday. In the end, as he crossed the finish line in Oudenaarde in eighth place, it was it was not quite one or the other, but something in between.
While Valverde's performance convincingly swept away doubts about whether the cobbles, bergs and style of racing in Flanders suited him, he didn't evince much regret over his past absences, either.
"For sure I'll be thinking about coming back here. I was in the first group, the select group, and that gives me confidence," Valverde said in Oudenaarde.
"To win it, I don't know. It's true that it went very well, but it's a race you have to know well."
That inexperience, however, hardly showed, as the 38-year-old maintained a good position throughout an open, fluctuating affair, where the only decisive move from the group of favourites came from the winner Alberto Bettiol on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont.
Valverde arrived in a group of 16 behind the Italian, but could only manage eighth in the sprint for the minor placings.
"The truth is I'm very happy. It's a very demanding race, above all due to the tension, the nerves, positioning. Once the main group had thinned down a little, I felt good and tried to ride the climbs towards the front. I finished happy," Valverde said.
"As the race went on, strength showed through, and the group became smaller and it was easier to maintain a good position. That went very well for me."
Valverde looked strong as the race hit the final climb of the Paterberg and it looked like he might have put himself in contention as he reacted to an acceleration from Mathieu van der Poel over the top. However, the gap wasn't big enough and the rest of the group came back, its sizing making it an unruly one that wasn’t conducive chasing down Bettiol.
"It was difficult, because there were some fast guys in there," Valverde said. "On the final climb we went over with four and we tried to make it work but it didn't. Then another group came and from then on it was very difficult. I wasn't going to spend more energy than the others."
As for his team as a whole, with Jasha Sutterlin and Nelson Oliveira playing leading roles for Movistar: "We rode very well. We were always up front, getting on the right side of splits, and that gave me a lot of confidence. In the first part of the race we took it easy but then we were all alert and getting ourselves into breaks."
While Valverde admitted his lack of knowledge of the terrain, he argued that it was mitigated by his experience of other major Classics. Over the past 18 years, he has, of course, built a palmarès that includes four victories at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and five at La Flèche Wallonne.
The world champion, whose wins in Belgium have come in the Ardennes region in the south, was a popular figure in the northern region of Flanders over the past week, and paid tribute to the atmosphere at De Ronde.
"The number of fans surprised me. It's phenomenal, and I want to thank all the fans because I was buzzing, riding in front of them," he said.
"I think they are even more passionate [than for Liège]. Liège is a great race, but I think that, for the Belgians, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are the special Classics."
Valverde is set to retire at the end of 2021, so those fans might yet see him at ‘Flanders finest’ on two further occasions. His palmarès won’t be incomplete without De Ronde, but he proved on Sunday that’s it's not out of reach.
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