After five wins in La Flèche Wallonne, four since 2014, the only question that fans will be asking themselves this Wednesday is whether Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will remain as King of the Mur de Huy. Anyone wishing to take on Valverde will find themselves facing an uphill battle, both in terms of the Spaniard’s current form and past history, that is easily as steep as the lungburstingly difficult Mur itself.
First, the statistics: already the record holder with five wins in la Flèche Wallonne, one in 2006 and four from 2014-2017, one more triumph on Wednesday means Valverde would become the first rider in cycling history to win a top mass start road-race Classic five times in a row.
Treating Jacques Anquetil’s six consecutive GP Nations success as a case apart given it was a time trial, the Spaniard would go one ahead of Tom Boonen’s four victories in E3 Harelbeke between 2004 and 2007, or Jan Raas' run of four triumphs in Amstel Gold Race between 1977 and 1980 or - if we include Monuments - Fausto Coppi’s four wins in the Giro di Lombardia between 1946 and 1949.
The form is clearly there, too. In Amstel Gold Race, for all Valverde finished fifth, it was the price he paid for excessively close marking between the top rivals, whilst the victory slipped away from all of them. But whilst there was no win for Valverde, then, for yet another year in the Amstel Gold, this is hardly stopped him from racking up the victories in the Belgian Classic one April after another.
Valverde’s stand-out contender status continues, too, despite his age - he will turn 38 two days after Liège-Bastogne-Liège and his appalling crash in last year’s Tour de France. So far this year he has won no less than nine races, the same as last year, including a second Volta a Catalunya. Not only that, Valverde gifted a 10th to his teammate Andrey Amador in the GP Amorebieta two weekends ago.
The course itself, too, remains essentially unchanged, for the start continues its early migration, this time to the grimy industrial town of Seraing, and for all the number of classified ascents is back up from nine to 11, including the Cote de la Redoute of Liège Bastogne-Liège fame, during the first two thirds of the 198.5 kilometre race.
However, the three ascents of the Mur and the crucial double finishing lap, of the Cote d’Ereffe (km 153, 183), Cote de Cherave (km 164, km 193) and Mur De Huy (km 140.5, km 169.5, km 198.5) remains the same. And Valverde, of course, knows exactly what he has to do no matter the race conditions, wind direction and weather - set, in any case, to be dry on Wednesday.
“If I am there between 200 and 250 metres to go, it is very difficult to beat me,” Valverde told the race website earlier this year. “I try to make sure nobody attacks, I calculate my distance and then I accelerate. It’s a distance I control very well, and that’s my advantage.”
He has others, though. Movistar showed they were in the thick of the fray on Sunday, with Mikel Landa playing a notable part in toughening up the course. Despite the organisers rerouting of the build-up over the Cherave to try to open up the finale, nobody needs reminding that the last long distance breakaway to make it to the Mur was in 2003, courtesy of former World Champion Igor Astarloa.
The rivals, this year, include usual suspect Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), with two seconds and a third place since 2014, as well as a fourth in 2013 and sixth in 2012, and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), a runner-up to Valverde in 2015. Local hopes will be pinned on Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing), third last year, and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), the only other previous winner taking part, back in 2011. But on Wednesday, there is no doubt about who is the man to beat.
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