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Spaniard Alejandro Valverde broke the record for wins at Flèche Wallonne Wednesday, once again timing his sprint on the Mur de Huy to perfection, to take a fourth career victory.
For the second year in a row, young Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) finished as runner-up to the Movistar rider. Alaphilippe’s teammate, Dan Martin, finished third.
Valverde’s victory was his third straight at Flèche Wallonne, adding to his first win, in 2006. Four men have won the Belgian semi-classic three times: Belgians Marcel Kint and Eddy Merckx, and Italians Moreno Argentin and Davide Rebellin. (Dutch star Marianne Vos has won the women’s Flèche Wallonne a record five times.)
The win came five days before Valverde’s 36th birthday, and four days before Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which Valverde will attempt to win for a fourth time.
Merckx holds the record for Liège wins, with five. And only Merckx has more victories in the Ardennes Classics than Valverde, leading the Spaniard with 10 wins to Valverde’s seven.
Valverde’s win marked the fifth year in a row a Spanish rider has won Flèche Wallonne, with Joaquim Rodríguez winning in 2012, and Daniel Moreno victorious in 2013.
Rodríguez (Katusha) was the first to launch an attack on the steep 1300-metre climb uno the “Wall of Huy.” But that was short-lived, and countered by Martin, with Valverde coming around the Irishman at 300 metres to go.
“It’s incredible to win for a fourth time,” Valverde said. “It’s historical for myself and for the team. I knew that I was in great shape so I made the best of it. The idea for the Mur de Huy was to be well positioned at the front. I decided to focus on my own course up the Mur, my own path. I knew I had to hang on until a certain distance, stay well positioned and give everything with 100m to go. Of course it’s important to enter history. It isn’t just a game or an extra line on my record. The Fleche is a major race in the cycling calendar.”
10-rider breakaway on a short leash
Sunny, clear skies and warm temperatures greeted the 199-rider men’s peloton at the start in Marche-en-Famenne for the 196km WorldTour race.
One rider, Sergio Henao, did not start, after his Team Sky management pulled him from competition due to a UCI investigation into his Biological Passport blood values.
The peloton covered 45km in the first hour of racing without a breakaway forming. It wasn’t until 60km in that ten men went clear, following an initial attack by Steve Cummings (Dimension Data).
Joining Cummings at the front: Koen Bouwman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Silvan Dillier (BMC), Vegard Stake Laengen (IAM Cycling), Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo), Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Tosh Van Der Sande (Lotto Soudal), Sander Helven (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Mads Pedersen (Stolting Service Group), and Quentin Pacher (Delko Marseille Provence KTM).
The 10-rider move opened a maximum advantage of 3:30 as they reached the Mur de Huy for the first of three ascents, with 100km raced and 96km remaining.
That gap slowly came down as Movistar, Katusha, Orica-GreenEdge, Astana, and Etixx-QuickStep all patrolled the front of the peloton. With 78km to go, it was down to 3:06; with 63km to go, it was down to 2:18.
At 56km to go, Van der Sande and Bono attacked their breakaway companions. Cummings and Dillier bridged up to them, while behind, a crash in the peloton saw Trek’s Frank Schleck exit the race with a broken collarbone.
— La Flèche Wallonne (@flechewallonne) April 20, 2016
The four leaders approached the Mur de Huy a second time with a 1:10 gap, and 29km remaining.
Dillier was first to attack the Mur de Huy, drawing out Cummings, who then counterattacked and went clear.
With 22km remaining, all the remnants from the breakaway had been caught, save Cummings, who had opened a 55-second lead.
Movistar drove the chase, however, pulling in the British rider at 17km remaining.
The next attack came from Trek’s Bob Jungels, at 13km to go, with Georg Preidler (Giant-Alpecin) and Ion Izagirre (Movistar) following.
A seven-rider chase group formed, including Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Mikaël Cherel (AG2R La Mondiale), Woet Poels (Sky), and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Katusha).
With Tinkoff at the front of the peloton, riding for Roman Kreuziger, the chase group was reeled in at 7km to go.
On the Côte de Cherave, Preidler dropped. Izaguirre attacked, momentarily distancing Jungels, who could not match the effort.
Behind, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) attacked from the main bunch with the early slopes of the Mur de Huy on the horizon.
At 4km to go, Jungels was back on with Izaguirre, and the two were soon joined by Wellens. However QuickStep chased that move down, bringing the race together at the base of the Mur de Huy.
— La Flèche Wallonne (@flechewallonne) April 20, 2016
Rodriguez was first to truly attack on the climb, but he did not have the legs to make it stick. Martin was next, but perhaps his move came a touch too early.
Either way, Valverde proved to be too strong, winning by several bike lengths ahead of Alaphillippe.
“We were here to win with Dan,” Alaphilippe said. “We took our responsibilities. We did all we could to be in the fight on the last climb, as planned. But Valverde was again the strongest. We can’t have regrets. Valverde was just the strongest. His Movistar team worked hard throughout the race. Then Dan managed a great final climb but there was a stronger man. Of course he’s a great champion that I respect. Look at the races he’s won. To finish behind him is a satisfaction although I would have liked to win of course. I’m disappointed to be so close, but it’s a good day. I’d like to beat him before he retires. I have to continue improving. I’m conscious that I can really do well on this event.”
Valverde was effusive in his praise for his Movistar teammates. “The team was immense,” he said. “An absolute marvel, the whole squad was amazing, in perfect harmony. We were able to do the race we wanted to, and crown it in the best possible way. Imanol, Rubén, Betancur, Rory, Dani, Visco… all of them pushed like hell and paid attention to every single split into the bunch, keeping me calm at the front.
“Before the last ascent of the Mur de Huy there was a lot of fighting, swerving, and also mind games,” he continued. “I wanted to get to the front before the real climbing started to avoid any surprises. Purito attacked first, Daniel Martin followed shortly after. That moment, I saw my feelings were so incredibly great that I couldn’t do any other thing but go after them. This victory, as well as the ones in Castilla y León, keep me calm. Before heading into the start, I was nervous, because I felt my condition was better than in previous years. I wanted to keep everything under control and eventually, it turned out well.”
VALVERDE Alejandro VALVERDE Alejandro Movistar Team
ALAPHILIPPE Julian ALAPHILIPPE Julian Etixx - Quick Step
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MARTIN Dan MARTIN Dan Etixx - Quick Step
|Etixx - Quick Step||,,|