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Completing the first Flèche Wallonne/Liège-Bastogne-Liège double since Philippe Gilbert won all three Ardennes Classics in 2011, Alejandro Valverde sprinted to victory on Sunday at the end of this year’s Liège race.
The Spanish Movistar rider was quickest in a ten man sprint to the line, repeating his 2006 and 2008 titles by getting the better of Julian Alaphilippe, the Etixx-QuickStep rider who was second in Flèche Wallonne.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) was third while former world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) was fourth and Romain Kreuziger (Tinkoff Saxo) fifth.
Alaphilippe’s French compatriot Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) was aggressive in the finale but had to settle for sixth place.
Former race winners Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge), Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) all suffered due to crashes; Gerrans and Martin came down during the race, while Gilbert’s challenge fizzled out inside the final six kilometres due to the after-effects of his fall in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne.
“These last few years, I’ve gained in strength and confidence,” said Valverde after his triumph. “When you’re calm and confident, it makes things easier. I think my win is also due to that.
“Moreno’s attack was tough. After a fast and long race it was difficult to react but I knew he would struggle. Everyone was expecting me to go for it as the race favourite. I wanted to keep energy but I had to go for it. I managed to catch him and kept enough strength for the final sprint.”
Katusha rider Daniel Moreno made his move inside the final kilometre, jumping on the heels of an impressive amount of work by his team-mate Giampaolo Caruso.
Valverde brought him back but the expected counter by a third Katusha rider, Rodriguez, never followed.
“All three wins were great,” said Valverde, sizing up his latest triumph in comparison to his 2006 and 2008 successes.
“To win Liege is phenomenal. But maybe today’s win is even more special based on my week: finishing second at the Amstel and first at the Fleche and Liège. It means a lot. It’s a monument of cycling. To win here three times is like entering cycling history.”
As was the case after Flèche Wallonne, the triumph provoked questions on social media and elsewhere. A patient of Dr. Eufemianto Fuentes, who was the central point in the Operacion Puerto investigation, the Spaniard eventually served a two year ban from the sport.
He returned in 2012 and, despite turning 35 years of age on Saturday, the rider appears to be improving rather than slowing down.
Given that his first win was almost a decade ago, he was inevitably asked about the differences since that initial Liège triumph.
“What mainly changes is the appearance of new generations of riders,” he said. “In 2006, I was fighting against guys like Cunego, Bettini or Andy Schleck. Now there’s a new generation with guys like Alaphilippe. He looks very strong and has a promising future. A rider like Joaquim Rodriguez however is still around.”
Seventh in the Amstel Gold Race and second in Flèche Wallonne, Alaphilippe has marked himself as one of the big talents for the future. He’s just 22 years of age and in the second year of his pro career; he wanted to reach the line first, but also sees the bigger picture.
“I would have preferred to win but I’m happy with my condition and happy to be able to fight for the win in my first participation here,” he said.
“I crashed 30kms from the finish and had to stop to repair my rear wheel. I came back in La Redoute and tried to recover. I also had to do my job to catch the attacks. Today Kwiatkowski wasn’t at his best so it was up to me to be present in the final. We were all exhausted. I hung on and did my best.
“In the last kilometre I was probably too far behind. Everyone was checking Valverde and when he took off, I had to make a big effort to catch him. But after the final bend after closing the gap I couldn’t do much. Valverde was just stronger.”
Rodriguez admitted the same.
“On such a sprint, it’s almost impossible to beat Valverde. Added to that, he managed a very smart race today,” he said. “He took us exactly where he wanted us to be, to be sure he could attack at the good moment. When I saw that Moreno took off, I thought that he would have the legs to go on and win, but he was finally caught by Valverde and we found ourselves in the same situation.
“I’m very disappointed today. For me, the bottle is totally empty because I was feeling really strong before the race. It’s the race that I like the most and once again I miss out on a fantastic opportunity.”
How it played out:
A total of 200 riders from 25 teams lined out for the start of the 101st edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with the peloton facing cloudy conditions plus the possibility of rain.
As expected racing was aggressive and the speeds high prior to the establishment of the day’s early break, an octet of attackers who slipped clear 31 kilometres after the start and built a strong lead.
Those present were Ag2r La Mondiale’s Matteo Montaguti Minard, Lampre-Merida’s Diego Ulissi, Otto Vergaerde of Topsport, IAM rider Clément Chevrier, Marco Minnaard (Wanty), Anthony Turgis (Cofidis), Cesare Benedetti (Bora Argon) and the Cult Energy rider Rasmus Quaade.
These leaders opened their advantage to seven minutes 45 seconds by kilometre 48, prompting a reaction from the Europcar team behind and a reduction of the buffer to five minutes 15 seconds by the summit of the day’s first climb, the Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne. This was situated 79 kilometres after the start and with 174 kilometres left to cover from there to the finish, it was looking doubtful that the break could sprint a surprise.
The riders in the break tried to step up the pace but the biggest effect was the inability of Quaade, Chevrier and Vergaerde to keep up. That left five out front on the Côte de Wanne (km 169), but this number swelled when Andriy Grivko (Astana) and Gorka Izagirre (Movistar) bridged after the Côte de la Haute-Levée. Simon Yates (Orica GreenEdge) also got across, then a flurry of other riders then made the junction and swelled the move to 21 competitors.
Five of those were from the Astana team but the leader Vincenzo Nibali was missing from the move.
New break forms
With the early move negated, Astana’s Tanel Kangert sparked off a new move when he surged on the fifth categorised hill of the day, the Côte de la Haute-Levée.
Team-mate Michele Scarponi got across as did Manuele Boaro (Tinkoff-Saxo), Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) plus Esteban Chaves (Orica GreenEdge).
These went over the summit 25 seconds clear and then Kangert, Scarponi and Chaves pushed on together on the next climb, the Col du Rosier (km. 194).
They increased their advantage over the bunch to more than a minute but Movistar was chasing behind and hacked that down again to 45 seconds close to the top of the Col du Maquisard. Situated just 46 kilometres from the finish, the small gap at this point made things were looking very unlikely for the move to stay clear.
Soon afterwards a large crash decimated the peloton as it raced towards the start of the famous Côte de la Redoute. The fallers included former winners Dan Martin and Simon Gerrans, with Martin’s first cousin Nicolas Roche (Sky), Martin’s team-mate Nathan Haas, Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Matthias Frank (IAM) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) also hitting the deck.
Several tried to return to the bunch, Martin included, but being so close to the finish meant it was a very tough task.
Gerrans was determined to try but his chances came to an end when he fell for a second time.
Three man move shakes things up
Up front, Kangert was dropped on the Redoute, leaving just Scarponi and Chaves out front. The duo went over the top 35 seconds clear of a large group of chasers, and were eventually caught with 24 kilometres left.
Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff Saxo) and Katusha’s Gianpaolo Caruso were next to play their cards, breaking the elastic on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons and holding an 18 second lead over the summit.
Just 19 kilometres remained from that point and this prompted Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang to attack hard and bridge.
The riders behind recognised the danger and various groups tried to bridge, with Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Julian Alaphillipe (Etixx-QuickStep), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing Team) and Dani Moreno (Katusha) getting clear in a chase group.
These were reeled in after several kilometres, forming a chase group of approximately 25 competitors with 15 kilometres left.
Rain started falling and made things tricky in terms of grip. The leaders hoped that this would give them a chance but the chasers were drawing closer and closer.
Accelerations by Valverde and then Nibali on the Côte de Saint Nicolas saw the breakaway riders finally captured with approximately six kilometres left. Those surges also put paid to the chances of former winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team), who was still feeling the effects of his crash in Flèche Wallonne.
Ag2r la Mondiale rider Romain Bardet had some gas left in his tank and made his move with four kilometres left. Surprisingly, Caruso still had more left too and was able to drag him back.
He continued to ride through the three kilometre point and was still at the front inside the final two kilometres. Team-mate Moreno then surged under the kite, getting a gap on the uphill road towards the line.
Hesitation behind gave the impression that he could hold on, but Valverde thought otherwise and jumped across to him. Eight others also managed to contain the move, leading to a ten man sprint to the line.
Valverde knew that his finish was one of the fastest in the group, if not the fastest, and bided his time before kicking hard and taking his second win in less than a week.
Alaphilippe was a frustrated second, while Rodriguez missed out again when he took third.
VALVERDE Alejandro VALVERDE Alejandro Movistar Team
ALAPHILIPPE Julian ALAPHILIPPE Julian Etixx - Quick Step
|Etixx - Quick Step||0:00|
RODRÍGUEZ Joaquim RODRÍGUEZ Joaquim Team Katusha