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He started the race as the clear favourite, and ended it as a record five-time winner. Alejandro Valverde put in an assertive performance to take Flèche Wallonne, surging clear on the final ascent of the Mur de Huy and soloing to victory.
Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors) put in a late surge to take second behind the Movistar rider, while Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing Team) held off Sergio Henao (Team Sky) for third. Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) and Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb) completed the top six.
Speaking afterwards, Valverde said that the win was no easier or tougher than his other four, ranking it as equal to those earlier successes. He said that he would aim to return again in 2018 and try to win again.
The victory is the ninth of the season for Valverde, who seems – surprisingly – to be stronger than ever at 36 years of age.
As for Martin, his finishing pattern replicated those of other years. He was much further back than Valverde starting the final climb and had to make up a lot of ground. His second place follows third last year, second in 2014, fourth in 2013 and sixth in 2012.
The day was marked by a long-range break by six riders, from which Olivier Pardini (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protec) eventually pushed on ahead. He was overhauled by Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing Team) just before the final lap of the finishing loop, with the Italian then being joined by Bob Jungels (QuickStep Floors).
Jungels pressed on alone inside the final ten kilometres and carried an advantage onto the final ascent of the Mur de Huy. However the steep slopes proved to be his undoing, leading to his recapture and providing Valverde with the perfect platform to grab his fifth Flèche Wallonne.
“It was a victory of confidence, of strength and of having a great team at my side,” he said. “We had respect for the rivals, but I knew that I was in great physical condition and had to take advantage of it.
“We were convinced and the team was working from kilometere zero to be together at the end. Then we know that winning is very complicated because we only had one [rider], but the truth is that it is a race that I know well.
“Although it seems easy, it has been as difficult as my other triumphs here.”
Martin’s result was his sixth top three in a single-day WorldTour event. He said that things were complicated in the finale.
“This year’s Flèche Wallonne was strange, because we had a strong headwind on the Mur and the peloton was very nervous. That made for a messy finish and as a result I didn’t have the best position on the climb, where my plan was to take Alejandro’s wheel.
“Although things weren’t perfect and I didn’t have good legs today, I managed to come back and grab second place at the end of the race. This makes me look with optimism to Liège–Bastogne–Liège.”
How it played out:
Following on from Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, the Ardennes Classics continued with the shorter, mid-week Flèche Wallonne. The race began in Binche, covered 200.5 kilometres en route to the finish in Huy and included a tough final 75 kilometres.
In all the riders would face eight climbs inside this concluding segment. First off was the Côte d’Amay (km. 127.5, 1.4 kms at 6.7%), then the Côte de Villers le-Bouillet (km. 134, 1.2 km at 7.5%). These two would then be followed by the first of three ascents of the wall-like Mur de Huy, which is 1.3 kilometres in length and features an average gradient of 9.6%.
This first encounter with the famous climb was located 142.5 kilometres after the start and would take the riders across the finish line for the first time. The 31.5 kilometre finishing circuit would be tackled twice, and included the 2.1 kilometre, 5 percent Côte d’Ereffe (km. 155 and 184.5), the 1.3 kilometre, 8.1 percent Côte de Cherave (km. 166 and km. 195), plus the aforementioned Mur de Huy (km. 171.5 and 200.5).
As was the case with other years, that finish line would also see the end of the women’s race.
Defending champion Alejandro Valverde lined out at the head of the Movistar team and, on the basis of his storming form this season, was considered one of the top favourites. Another former winner, Philippe Gilbert should also have been a major contender, but a crash in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race left him with a torn kidney and an enforced period of time off the bike.
He had been able to remount after his crash and win Amstel, but realised afterwards he had a problem and was assessed by doctors.
In his absence, some of the riders regarded as most likely to challenge Valverde included Amstel runner-up Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors), Nathan Haas (Team Dimension Data) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky).
They would start with the intention of keeping their powder dry, while teams would fire less-tipped riders up the road early on.
Sure enough, three riders clipped clear after approximately ten minutes of racing. They were Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin), Yoann Bagot (Cofidis) and Olivier Pardini (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protec). Various others tried and failed to get across to the trio, who had a minute’s lead after 16 kilometres.
Approximately ten minutes later three chasers managed to bridge. Romain Guillemois (Direct Energie), Fabien Doubey (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Daniel Pearson (Aqua Blue Sport) joined forces with the other three and built a lead of over five minutes. Valverde’s Movistar team were leading the front of the bunch but were content to give the break some space at this early point.
With 130 kilometres left the sextet’s advantage was just under six minutes. Movistar began to ramp up the pace, seeking to keep things under control for Valverde’s bid for a record fifth win.
Breakaway fades as the intensity ramps up
The Spanish squad’s chase efforts soon reaped benefits, hewing down the break’s advantage. However the peloton relaxed in the feed zone and this allowed the gap to go out to over five minutes once more. The recovery was short lived: with 80 kilometres left, it was down to under four minutes, and it plummeted to just over one and a half minutes after the first ascent of the Mur de Huy.
That climb decimated the chances of Politt, who was dropped. Pearson also came into difficulties and lost his own opportunity, as did Doubey. The break was rapidly disintegrating and was less than a minute ahead on the Côte d’Ereffe.
The narrowing gap prompted BMC Racing’s Alessandro de Marchi to start firing off attacks. He was marked by Valverde’s teammate Carlos Betancur and was soon hauled back. The surge in pace spelt danger for the leaders and this prompted Pardini to leave Guillemois and Bagot to their fate.
He raced onto the Côte de Cherave and gave everything to try to hold on, but also succumbed to the chase. The race was back together but De Marchi changed that, leaping clear once more before the top of the climb.
The Italian built an advantage of 20 seconds between there and the second ascent of the Mur de Huy. The QuickStep Floors led the peloton there, with the day’s leader Dan Martin sitting fourth wheel and looking comfortable.
De Marchi went over the top with a slender advantage. Soon afterwards, Bob Jungels (QuickStep) attacked with 28.5 kilometres left on the clock. Others tried to chase but he was the only one able to get across to De Marchi. With 21 kilometres left they had 20 seconds, and this increased by three seconds over the next four kilometres.
Jungels’ freshness relative to his breakaway companion plus his time trial prowess saw him do much of the pacesetting. Behind, the Orica-Scott team were racing hard, with Chris Juul Jensen leading the Australian squad in a bid to set up Albasini. He was previously second and third in the race and fancied his chances.
The leaders raced over the final ascent of the Côte de d’Ereffe and then on towards the penultimate hill, the Côte de Cherave. Jungels was still doing all the work and was maintaining a lead of over 20 seconds on Juul Jensen plus the other Orica-Scott riders.
Jungels was feeling good and dropped De Marchi. With ten kilometres left he was working hard on the mainly downhill roads and holding an advantage of 38 seconds. He knew he’d need a bigger buffer for the Mur de Huy, but was also aware that his being out front took pressure off his QuickStep squad and forced others to chase.
Jungel’s advantage continued to grow and he was 50 seconds clear with 7.5 kilometres left. Orica-Scott was continuing to chase, while Team Sky was lurking close by and preparing to play its card. It duly took over and recaptured De Marchi on the lower slopes of the Côte de Cherave.
Rafal Majka (Bora-hansgrohe) ramped up the pace on the climb and stretched things out. His effort didn’t last long but helped hew Jungels’ advantage down to 30 seconds by the top of the climb.
The Luxembourg rider knew that his gap wouldn’t be enough to hold off the bunch on the Mur de Huy, and so he worked hard on the descent to try to pad his advantage. The pace was on behind, though, and the chase by Sky’s Gianni Moscon meant he had just 24 seconds with two kilometres remaining.
He fought hard and kept much of this buffer to the foot of the Mur de Huy, but once inside the final kilometre an effort by Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and then Team Sky brought the peloton much closer. Jungels was finally swallowed up as the climb steepened.
Valverde, Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) and Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) were hovering at the front, eyeing each other, then Valverde made his move. He surged clear and while Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing Team) tried to hold him, he was unable to do so.
Dan Martin – who had seemed too far back with 200 metres to go – came through for second place, while Teuns was just able to hold off Sergio Henao for third.
Now Valverde turns his attention to next weekend’s race.
“Liège? On Sunday we will see,” he said. “I am in great form, but for the moment I have to enjoy this fifth victory here.”
VALVERDE Alejandro VALVERDE Alejandro Movistar Team
MARTIN Dan MARTIN Dan Quick-Step Floors
TEUNS Dylan TEUNS Dylan BMC Racing Team
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