“It’s like every year. There will be other riders who are up there but if you are looking for a reference point in Liege, everybody’s going to say 'Alejandro',” Movistar sports director Jose Luis Arrieta told Cyclingnews.
“There’s all this fuss about whether he will draw equal to Moreno Argentin” - who has four victories in Lige-Bastogne-Liege, one less than Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of five. “But that’s not something that particularly obsesses him, even if no other rider who’s currently in the peloton has as many Liege wins as he does.”
Nor is it new for Valverde to feel the heat of being a top contender in La Doyenne: as the winner of Liege in 2006, 2008 and 2015, Valverde holds the record for the greatest time lapse between two victories in the Ardennes Classic. With a fifth win in Fleche Wallonne now in his palmares, there’s no doubt who will be the man to watch when the riders roll out of the Place Saint-Lambert square in central Liege on Sunday morning. And Arrieta recognises that Movistar will be expected to do the bulk of the spadework when it comes to controlling the race early on.
“There are 200 riders in the peloton of a major Classic and controlling all of them with a team of eight is not exactly straightforward, but that makes the whole squad really important, too.”
With that in mind, Movistar will present an identical line-up as in Amstel and Flèche Wallonne, with Dani Moreno, who played a key role for Valverde in his victory on Wednesday, expected to be an important support rider on Sunday’s finale.
“We came to the Ardennes after a great spring for Alejandro,” Arrieta reflects. “In Amstel, Alejandro made a mistake, or didn’t react quickly enough, but that’s what makes him human. If he never made any mistakes, or always made it across to the attacks at the right moment, I can’t see his rivals being too pleased about that. It already happens rarely enough.”
As Arrieta sees it, the fact that Valverde sometimes is defeated is not wholly negative - rather it’s a sign that he is always there or thereabouts in the races that matter, win or lose. “It’s good too, that he sometimes loses, because that means he was up there in the action. Other riders never lose because they aren’t there. He gets some criticism for losing, but people are beginning to value too, how he’s always where he should be, too always racing well, year after year.”
After a couple of hours of easy training on Thursday, Valverde will recon the last 90 kilometres of Liege today (Friday), including its crucial three new climbs that will open up the final phase of racing and then the usual run-in to Ans, before doing another light training session on Saturday.
In Wednesday’s press conference, the removal of the last short climb of Cote de la Rue Naniot was brushed aside by Valverde as insignificant in the grand scheme of things, even if last year it was where Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) forged the winning four-man break. Arrieta points out that, “Last year was the first time they had used that climb, so riders approached it cautiously. It was a new element in the game. I don’t think that climb would have played the same role as last year this April if they’d kept it in there. Now we’re back to the old route in any case, so things will change again.”
The folly of keeping an Ardennes Classic shut down until the finale was - once again - obvious on Wednesday and the advantages of doing the opposite were clear on the Sunday before, where Valverde missed the crucial breakaway with Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors). But Arrieta does not feel forming a big break in a race as hard as Liege, particularly if the weather is poor, can happen so easily.
“It’s easy to say when you’re watching, that a big move should go early, but how easy it is really for that to happen? There was a time when the winning break would form on La Redoute, 40 kilometres out from the finish, but these days a bunch of 80 riders will make it over that climb all together.”
“So these days it tends to be more in La Roche aux Faucons [km 239], things have moved there, or on Saint Nicolas [km 252.5]. Quite often winning in Liege has come down to a rider’s race form and strength rather than the right break going at the right time. Which means there are lots of riders who could be a top favourite for Sunday.”
For now, though, there is only one rider lining up for Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege whom everybody knows they have to beat.
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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