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Four days after he took a record fifth Flèche Wallonne, Alejandro Valverde clocked up his fourth Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The Movistar rider followed up his wins in 2006, 2008 and 2015 with another success, overhauling 2013 champion Dan Martin after the latter made his move inside the final kilometre.
Martin was himself responding to a move by Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac) with just over five kilometres left. He jumped close to where he made his winning move four years ago and got past the Italian, but Valverde clinically closed him down and went past just before the final corner.
He then opened up his sprint and while Martin tried to dig deep, he had to make do with second. Behind, Milan-San Remo winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) nabbed third, three seconds back, beating Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Ion Izagirre (Bahrain Merida), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott).
Valverde was jubilant just after the line, but became emotional during the post-race interview. He was affected by the loss of Michele Scarponi (Astana), who was killed while training on Saturday.
“He was a very good friend of mine,” said Valverde. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. It a real pity. Of course I am going to dedicate all the money I have earned from this, and this week, to his family.
“It is awful what happened. I think all the team, when they heard it, were very saddened. Of course all of cycling was too, he was such a character.”
Moving on the subject of the race, he was thankful to Movistar.
“The team was fantastic all this week. It did a great job. It helped me in the final,” he said. “It has been a pefect week for me. It has been a great season.
“Of course I want to win every race that I ride. We had a hard time at the start, we knew that nobody would work with us.”
Although the race was marked by a long-distance move, things closed up in the finale. Formolo then made his move with just over five kilometres left and got a gap, but hard chasing behind reduced his lead and enabled Martin to bridge.
Valverde sensed danger and knew he had to react. “Martin was strong at the end and when he had a few metres, I had to follow,” he said. “I calculated the distance and had enough to take the win.”
How it played out:
The last of the Spring Classics began in Liège, with a total of 258 kilometres lying ahead for the riders. They would also face a large number of hills, with several uncategorised ones being followed by ten official ascents. These were the Côte de La Roche en Ardenne (km 70, 2.8 km at 6.2%), the Côte de Saint-Roch (km 116, 1 km at 11.2%), the Côte de Pont (km 168, 1 km at 10.5%), the Côte de Bellevaux (km 172, 1.1 km at 6.8%), the Côte de la Ferme Libert (km 180, 1.2 km at 12.1%), the Col du Rosier (km 198, 4.4 km at 5.9%) and the Col du Maquisard (km 211, 2.5 km at 5%).
These were then followed by the famous Côte de La Redoute (km 222.5, 2 km at 8.9%), the Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons (km 239, 1.3 km at 11%) and the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (km 252.5, 1.2 km at 8.6%). The latter was the final official climb but there was then another, often decisive uphill before the line.
The course featured changes this year: the previous trio of the Côte de Wanne, the Stockeu and the Haute-Levée were taken out due to roadworks. In their place, the Côte de Pont, the Côte de Belleveaux and the tough Côte de la Ferme Liberte were added.
The day would also see the holding of the first-ever women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, part of the welcome increase in the women’s calendar [see report here].
A minute’s tribute was paid to Astana rider Michele Scarponi, who was tragically killed while training on Saturday. This included applause for the Italian, who was a warm and fondly-regarded character.
— Liège-Bastogne-Liège (@LiegeBastogneL) April 23, 2017
Right after the drop of the flag, Lotto-Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt attacked. He was hauled back, and eight riders then countered. They were Tiago Machado of Katusha, Bart De Clercq (Lotto Soudal), Mekseb Debesay (Dimension Data), Cofidis duo Anthony Perez and Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis), Nick Van Der Lijke (Roompot), Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie) and Aaron Gate (Aqua Blue).
They quickly opened a four minute lead and this then soared to ten minutes after 55 kilometres. Olivier Pardini (WB Veranclassic) chased hard for over an hour in a bid to get across and almost bridged, but the climb of the Côte de La Roche en Ardenne (km 70) caused him to crack.
The break continued to make gains and was 11 minutes 20 seconds ahead with 102 kilometres to go. Behind, Sky and Movistar were chasing, mindful that the gap was potentially dangerous if unaddressed.
The leaders moved onto those three new climbs and there Debesay was dropped by the break. Behind, previous winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott) attacked on the Côte de Belleveaux. Ag2r La Mondiale’s Mickaël Chérel sensed opportunity and joined him, but they were soon brought back. The break was nine minutes 20 seconds ahead and remained fully committed.
The big names start to show
The Movistar team of Flèche Wallonne winner Alejandro Valverde was doing most of the pacesetting, but were being added by others at times. QuickStep Floor’s Peter Vakoc was one, aiming to boost the chances of team leader and 2013 winner Dan Martin.
The break raced onto the Côte de La Redoute and there Perez pushed ahead. In the peloton, Sebastian Henao was livening things up with an increase in pace, and this sparked off a more aggressive phase in the bunch.
With 30 kilometres left the peloton was three and a half minutes behind the Cofidis rider, with the break splintered behind him. Five riders – Machado, Grellier, Rossetto, Van der Lijke and De Clercq were 26 seconds back heading towards the Côte de La Roche-aux-Faucons, where they joined Perez.
Behind, the BMC Racing Team were leading and had reduced the break’s lead to under two minutes. With 19.3 kilometre on the clock Sergio Henao (Sky) attacked. The break was one minute 18 ahead then and he pushed hard to both stretch out the peloton and also reduce the break’s lead. Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing Team) were close by, trying to hold on.
Roman Kreuziger (Bahrain Merida) was feeling good and attacked, causing a break. Others came back up and then Kreuziger pushed ahead again with Caruso, Sam Oomen, Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r La Mondiale), Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe), Davide Villella and Mike Woods (both Cannondale-Drapac) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal).
Ahead, Machado plus Cofidis duo Anthony Perez and Stéphane Rossetto were the sole remnants of the break, with Perez then cracking and sliding backwards. Rossetto shed Machado too and rode defiantly, trying to stave off the chasing group.
He had just ten seconds lead with 9.6 kilometres, though, and things were clearly coming back together. The chasing group was absorbed by the peloton, with Wellens jumping clear just before the junction and getting across to Rossetto. They had ten seconds with eight kilometres to go. Unsurprisingly, the fresher – and better-known – Wellens was doing all the work.
Final battle plays out before the line
The Team Sky squad was chasing hard, determined to play its card. Although the team was missing defending champion Wout Poels, affected by a knee problem, it was aiming take another victory in the race. However Wellens was riding very well and maintained the ten second lead with 6.5 kilometres to go.
That put them on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (km 252.5, 1.2 km at 8.6%), where things really fired up behind. Woods jumped away and overhauled the leaders, then Sergio Henao and Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) shot past.
Several others got up to them and, timing things perfectly when a slight lull happened, Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac) attacked with just over five kilometres left.
Those chasing him were a very select group. They included Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) and others, but Formolo still pulled ahead. Others were able to join the chasers, reflecting a slight lack in pace, and this plus Formolo’s strong riding saw him hold ten seconds with 1.8 kilometres left.
Seconds later Omar Fraile (Dimension Data) surged ahead on the drag up towards the finish line and made some inroads into Formolo’s lead. However he was hauled back by the chasing group, which was stretched out by the intensity of the pace.
Going under the kite he was approximately four seconds ahead. Dan Martin attacked hard in a bid to repeat his 2013 win, pulling ahead despite Adam Yates’ (Orica-Scott) efforts in pursuit.
Martin whipped past Formolo while behind Valverde made his move, jumping hard to try to bridge. He whipped past going around the final corner and opened his sprint. Martin tried to resist but had to be content with second, just as was the case in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne.
He said afterwards that he accepted the result. “We did a great race and we were beaten by someone better. On Wednesday, I was not happy with myself because I thought I made a mistake but today very I’m very happy with the way I rode, and the team too. They rode out of their skin for me.
“I went for a strong attack in the finale. I waited for the moment Alejandro (Valverde) was a bit boxed in. I thought I’d catch him by surprise. I gave my all. Once he came past me, I just hoped there was nobody else coming.”
He said that while he wanted to win, he could accept the runner-up slot. “Of course it would be better without Alejandro but it’s never a frustration to be beaten by someone stronger. It’s a great result and it’s a great way to finish the Classics for the team. It’s been an incredible first part of the season.”
VALVERDE Alejandro VALVERDE Alejandro Movistar Team
MARTIN Dan MARTIN Dan Quick-Step Floors
KWIATKOWSKI Michał KWIATKOWSKI Michał Team Sky