Valverde vows to return to Fleche Wallonne fray for sixth title

There are plenty of cliches out there about nothing lasting forever, but five years represent an eternity in the intense world of Classics racing. So when Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) failed to triumph in La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday for the fifth April in a row, it represented a shocking defeat with a capital S.

But if Valverde was disappointed, he did not show it too much, pointing out afterwards that he had been the rider that ran Alaphilippe the closest and promised to return to the fray in the years to come.

At the same time, as Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal), the other rider on the Flèche Wallonne podium pointed out, from the moment the race had tackled the Mur for the first time, and the attacks began to rain down on Movistar, "it had felt different to other years.

"For the first time in five years, it was as if we all realised that to beat Valverde; we had to put him under pressure well before the finish."

Sitting in the press conference, where - to his immense credit - Valverde seemed as happy to answer questions after finishing second as he had done when he won, the Movistar leader recognised that it had been a higher-pressure race than other years.

"Everybody raced hard against me, but it was clear that I was the man to beat, and that's normal. At the start of the race, I was the big favourite. But I'm still going away feeling pleased with how I raced because I did everything I could.

"I haven’t won in lots of places, I was fifth in Amstel on Sunday, but I was second here, and I was fighting to win all the way.

"It doesn't feel strange to have lost; it just feels different."

Valverde said that despite the tumultuous last two laps, the race was won and lost was on the climb itself. And at a critical moment, he ran out of legs.

"I lost it on the Mur," he argued. "[Vincenzo] Nibali's group was very strong when he broke away, and the team had to work hard to pull back that break. But where I lost was on the Mur itself.

"I'm going well," said Valverde, who later insisted he was in the best form of his life.

"Alaphilippe was better. He attacked very early on the climb, I went behind and could close the gap, but then that energy I used up in closing it was what I was missing at the end.

"So, I cut my losses and concentrated on being sure I could finish second."

As for Sunday and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Valverde remains focussed on trying to equalise Eddy Merckx's record of five victories in La Doyenne, despite his defeat. He played down the idea that Quick-Step Floors would now have to shoulder the pressure jointly with Movistar to keep the race under control.

"We thought they would do that today, but in fact, it was UAE that worked with us. It's going to be similar on Sunday, too, and we'll have to take responsibility. Quick-Step don't normally drive as hard as we do in these kinds of races."

Valverde argued that his condition was no different to other years and that in fact, he felt better than he had done at this point in other seasons. His bad crash and injuries in last year's Tour de France have not had any long-term effects, he insisted, and despite his turning 38 next week, he was sure he could continue in the fray for some years to come.

"I want to go on as far as the Tokyo Olympics, and I've got another year's contract left, and I want to sign one after that, so I think we can expect some more battles between me and Julian on the Mur de Huy in the future," Valverde argued.

"Maybe I won’t be in such great shape as other years, but I'm going to keep fighting."

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.