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by Shane Stokes
April 23, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos
Riding authoritatively from the front on the final climb of the Mur de Huy and gradually ramping up the pace before breaking into a full-on push to the line, Alejandro Valverde successfully defended his Flèche Wallonne title and landed his third career victory in the event.
The Spanish Movistar rider hit the line well clear of the other podium finishers, Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick-Step) and Michael Albasini (Orica GreenEdge), with past winners Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and team-mate Daniel Moreno fifth and sixth.
Other contenders such as Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team), who won in 2011, Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin), second last year, and 2013 Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) were all caught up in some of the many crashes. Of those, only Froome continued on all the way to the finish, crossing the line over twelve minutes back in 123rd place.
Valverde’s victory owed in part to missing out on those crashes, and also to his finishing surge. Set to turn 35 years of age on Saturday, his past history means that his strong form in 2014 and this year is the topic of some debate.
“It is true it has been a hard day with many big crashes,” he said soon after crossing the line. “I can’t remember a day with such a hard race but I am very happy.
“I feel my team is doing a great job for me. I am happy to pay them back and win here.”
Valverde’s squad helped in dealing with an attack by the Lotto Soudal rider Tim Wellens, who went clear on the penultimate climb, the new Côte de Cherave. He carried a 14 second lead onto the base of the Mur de Huy but the difficulty of the climb ensured this was far from enough and he was caught approximately halfway up.
Earlier, a move containing several riders opened a big lead. These were later joined by Giovanni Visconti, Valverde’s team-mate, plus Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana).
While they were hauled back on the Côte de Cherave, Visconti’s move took pressure off the Movistar team and forced other squads to chase.
“I had Visconti up the road,” Valverde pointed out. “I was well placed. The rhythm was good. I set the rhythm [on the final climb] by increasing it and reaped the rewards.
“About 200 metres before the end I knew I had the strength to win it.”
Valverde was previously victorious in 2006 and last year and, after netting second in the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday plus taking his latest win, is feeling confident about Sunday’s race.
“At the moment I have won three [editions of Flèche Wallonne – ed]. I was second in the Amstel race. Let’s see about Liège. I am looking forward to that race.”
Following Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, many of the same riders and teams lined out for the 205.5 kilometre Flèche Wallonne. Scaling the famous Mur de Huy three times, the route also included the newly-introduced Côte de Cherave which organisers hoped would spice up the finale prior to the tough uphill sprint to the finish.
Seven riders nipped away inside the first 20 kilometres, setting up what would be the day’s big move. Lotto Soudal’s Thomas de Gendt was arguably the best known, while Mike Teunissen (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) was the other WorldTour rider in the break.
They were also joined by Daniele Ratto (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling), Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Reinier Honig (Team Roompot), Jérôme Baugnies (Wanty – Groupe Gobert) and Brice Feillu (Bretagne-Séché Environnement).
The septet quickly got five minutes and then further extended this gap to eight. This ebbed to just under seven minutes with 70 kilometres elapsed. By the time the peloton climbed the Mur de Huy for the first time, approximately 88 kilometres from the finish, the break was five minutes 45 seconds up.
Last year’s runner-up Dan Martin was even further back. The Cannondale-Garmin rider crashed but chased and eventually managed to get back into the peloton, although the incident would lead to him later withdrawing.
De Gendt was doing much of the work in the break but his efforts weren’t enough to stop the peloton from inching closer. A Sky-led chase chipped the lead down to under five minutes with 60 kilometres left, and the response by the break to try to increase the pace saw Teunissen slide out the back of the escape group.
He lost contact on the Cote de Bellaire climb, with Honig also suffering the same fate.
Heading towards the next ascent of the Mur de Huy, a big crash took down former winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team). Julien Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) also fell, as did his team-mate Bob Jungels, Chris Jones (United Healthcare) and others.
Gilbert looked very sore and had a badly ripped jersey and shorts, but was able to stand up and get going again. However the crash, the delay and the slow pace he moved off at put paid to his chances of winning. He abandoned soon afterwards.
Another crash with 40 kilometre to go took down several more riders, including Team Sky duo Lars Petter Nordhaug and Wout Poels, Ben King (Garmin-Cannondale), BMC racing Team’s Amael Moinard plus FDJ’s Anthony Roux. The latter was in some distress but eventually able to get going again.
Yet another spill followed approximately ten minutes later. This time Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Soudal) was one of those on the deck, as was Alexey Tsatevich (Katusha) and Kevin Reza (FDJ.fr).
Out front, Baugnies opened a small lead over the other breakaway riders on the second ascent of the Mur de Huy but these regrouped soon afterwards. The peloton was less than a minute back at that point, making it increasingly certain that the break would be caught.
Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) and Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) scurried clear after the top of that climb, joining forces to try to bridge across to the leaders. They soon did so.
With 24 kilometres to go the Etixx QuickStep team were riding hard, trying to set up world champion Michal Kwiatkowski after his Amstel Gold Race triumph. They were bringing the break back gradually, although the addition of Visconti and Sanchez proved useful in giving the move extra impetus.
Ratto and then De Gendt found the increase in pace difficult and slipped back on the Ereffe climb. The latter was caught and passed by an attacking Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) with 17.7 kilometres left. The American then pushed onwards, trying to get up to those out in front.
Somewhat inevitably, the fresher legs of Sanchez and Visconti saw them go clear of the others. Behind, a fading de Gendt gave a little help to his team-mate Louis Vervaecke, who managed to get up to Van Garderen. The duo combined with Baugnies, but hard chasing by the bunch saw this trio recaptured 13.4 kilometres from the finish.
Sanchez and Visconti continued to plug away, even it was more and more clear that they wouldn’t hold off the peloton. Visconti was fine with this; his main aim was to give his Movistar team-mates an easier ride behind, with his presence out front meaning that they didn’t have to chase.
The duo had 20 seconds with 12 kilometres left, at which point the bunch was afflicted by another crash. Former Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Sky) was one of those on the deck, as were several IAM Cycling competitors. Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing Team) and Europcar’s Bryan Coquard also ended up on the ground.
With ten kilometres to go Huub Duyn (Team Roompot) kicked clear in pursuit of the duo out front. He looked powerful but the peloton wasn’t in a mood to give anyone leeway and limited his gains. The new climb of the Côte de Cherave was coming up and there was a lot of riding behind to try to put the team leaders in the right position.
Former world time trial champion Tony Martin was feeling good and drove the pace heading into the final seven kilometres. Team-mate Kwiatkowski was stuck to his wheel and looking very comfortable. He also didn’t appear too concerned when other riders began to push forwards on the climb.
This acceleration saw the leaders drawn closer and closer to those behind. Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali played his card with 6.1 kilometres left, putting in a brief surge. Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) then clipped clear, opening a gap on the peloton and moving into the lead after the recapture of Sanchez and Visconti.
Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) saw the danger with Wellens’ move and tried to get across. He was a few seconds back with five kilometres to go but was unable to get any closer. The peloton got him back with 2.6 kilometres left.
Wellens had the dilemma of needing a big lead to stand a chance on the final climb. He had to dig in deep to try to build that advantage, taking fuel out of the tank for the Mur de Huy itself. He had 14 seconds with one kilometre to go and carried that onto the foot of the climb.
However it wasn’t enough. Lampre-Merida was leading the chase behind and nibbled away the gap, hauling him back. Valverde made his move with 250 metres to go, leading from the front and gradually winding things up. He powered up and pulled clear of the others, extending his career wins in the event to three and setting himself up as perhaps the biggest favourite for Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.