Last year when Alejandro Valverde was asked in a Movistar press conference which victory he wanted the most in the Ardennes Classics, he did not even hesitate for one millisecond before saying Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After his shock defeat on the slopes of the Mur de Huy in Wednesday's Fléche Wallonne, the question is: Can Valverde bounce back high enough to win on the final climb to Ans come Sunday?
As a four-time champion of La Doyenne, it would be a colossal error to rule out Valverde at Liège. To grasp the scale of that achievement, and what it indicates about his potential for a repeat victory, it's enough to remember one thing. None of the four other Liège winners that are still racing - Philippe Gibert (Quick-Step Floors), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Simon Gerrans (BMC Racing Team) and Wout Poels (Team Sky) - have won it more than once.
Valverde says he is in the form of his life, and although he lost at Flèche Wallonne, he still finished second. On top of that, after losing to Julian Alaphilippe, his motivation to equal Eddy Merckx's record of five wins in Liège will be even higher than before.
This year is probably Valverde's best opportunity to do so. If newspaper reports are correct, this will be the last-ever Liège-Bastogne-Liège finish in Ans, with the race due to return to the city centre in 2019. Although Valverde is more than capable of winning on flatter finishes - he was once known as a sprinter - it's clear the grinding uphill finale through the suburbs of Liège has suited the Movistar leader up to now.
Alaphilippe's stunning victory in Flèche Wallonne represents a massive breakthrough for the Quick-Step Floors racer. According to Valverde, this was no fluke, Alaphilippe was simply stronger. The end of Valverde's domination in one Ardennes Classic is bound to raise questions about his command of the other. It also proves that the strategy used by Valverde's rivals, with riders like Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) launching a long-distance attack, can break the Spaniard's stranglehold on the Ardennes Classics. In the process, it made for one of the most exciting editions of La Flèche Wallonne in years.
"It's taken us five years, but finally we've found the right tactic to beat Valverde," Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal), third on the Mur de Huy, commented afterwards.
"You can't let his team crack out a constant pace at the front of the bunch. From the first time we went over the Mur de Huy, I felt it was a different race, and that was clear at the end where Valverde was isolated. He had to work himself, and that's why he finished second, not first."
But how far can the events of Wednesday in Huy be extrapolated to Sunday's race in Liège? Once again, thanks to the UCI's new regulations, Movistar, and all the other teams will have one less rider to control the race than in previous years, something which was arguably just as critical a factor in unseating Valverde as his rivals' more gung-ho attitude. In a race that is 60 kilometres longer and much harder overall, with roughly 4,500 metres of vertical climbing compared to 3,500 in Flèche Wallonne 2018, once again we could see more long-distance attacks by the other contenders. Or maybe even - unlikely as it may seem - Valverde himself?
Whatever happens expectations of a very different kind of Liège-Bastogne-Liège compared to previous years are now much higher than usual.
Alaphilippe's victory makes him the standout rival for Sunday, but there are plenty of others who will have been encouraged by their results on Wednesday. Collectively, Lotto-Soudal were once again a force to be reckoned with, and Vincenzo Nibali's lengthy breakaway in Flèche made it clear that the Bahrain-Merida star has not come to the Ardennes merely to get in more miles.
Michael Matthews' fifth place on the Mur is ample confirmation that the Team Sunweb racer is back on track after his injury-blighted early spring. And as one of the fastest finishers in the pack, Matthews could prove one of Valverde's most dangerous rivals should it all come down to a small bunch sprint at the summit of Ans. The Australian will have strong backing from Tom Dumoulin, too, who will make his only appearance in an Ardennes Classic at Liège as he limbers up for the Giro d'Italia.
Astana have Michael Valgren and Jakob Fuglsang, who are two important contenders. Team Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski and his teammate Wout Poels have excellent track records in Liège as well. UAE Team Emirates' leader Dan Martin, too, will be looking to bounce back from his disappointing Flèche Wallonne. Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott), second in Amstel and fourth in Flèche, has so far been the most consistently successful racer of the Ardennes. The second most consistent, with fifth in Amstel and a second place on Wednesday - Valverde.
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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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