Alejandro Valverde gave himself an early present by riding away from all his rivals to claim his second victory at the ‘Walloon Arrow’, Flèche Wallonne, two days shy of his 34th birthday.
Cunego’s crash leaves Gilbert gutted and J-Rod guttered
If one of the enduring images of the 2013 classics season was watching Sky’s Geraint Thomas repeatedly picking himself off the floor after yet another crash – it seemed to happen almost as often as Eurosport cut to commercials – then Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) must be wondering whether he has caught the Welshman’s disease.
An early crash eliminated the UCI’s top-ranked rider from Amstel Gold, but he was cleared to race here. However, when Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) crashed 3km from the finish, J-Rod was once again Joaquim-on-the-spot and abruptly found himself with a tarmac-level view of the peloton speeding by.
Cunego’s crash was a small but decisive moment in the race. It only brought down a handful of riders but it was enough to cause several others to lose position in the peloton – even the slightest tap of the brakes can lose a rider 30-40 positions in an instant when the pack is at full tilt – including Amstel winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC), whose challenge was compromised beyond repair.
Valverde in the springtime
Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde must be a spring sort of person. Victory today brought his total of wins to eight in 2014 so far. That’s two more than any other rider.
Although this year has been exceptional, the Spaniard is often at his best in the early part of the season, whether it is in one-day or hilly stage races. Excluding 2010 and 2011 (when he was banned) he has achieved exactly four wins by the end of April every year but one since 2008 (in 2009 he ‘only’ won three times).
His performance here had all the hallmarks of a hugely experienced rider at the top of his game. To watch him on the decisive final climb of the Mur de Huy is to observe a man who gets his tactics absolutely spot on. He spends most of the climb in second wheel, taking the wide line around bends to lessen the impact of the 20%-plus gradients and dropping back briefly on the steepest section while Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) made their big moves.
The net result? Valverde completed the toughest part of the climb having ridden the most even pace and expended the least energy. Only as the road started to level off in the final 200 metres did he launch his own, race-winning move. Was Valverde the strongest rider on the day? Maybe, maybe not. But was he the most astute? Definitely. As in all the Ardennes races, timing is everything.
Valverde will line up as one of the big favourites at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. After that he’ll enjoy a well-deserved rest before building back up for the Tour de France. That means we won’t see him again until the Dauphiné or possibly the Tour de Suisse in June.
Race in numbers
4 – Alejandro Valverde‘s second Flèche victory brings his total of Ardennes classics wins to four (Flèche in 2006 and 2014, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2006 and 2008).
3 – Spanish riders have won each of the last three editions (Valverde, Moreno, Rodriguez).
4 – Michal Kwiatkowski has finished in the top five in four of the last five Ardennes classics races, stretching back to last Year’s Amstel Gold.
13 – Highest-placed finish for Dan Martin in 2014 prior to him finishing as runner-up today. Talk about a late run into form!
6 – Number of top-ten finishers from VeloVoices’ nine-man Fantasy Ardennes team (Valverde, Kwiatkowski, Mollema, Kreuziger, Moreno, Gilbert), including three of the top four. (If we hadn’t dismissed Panache’s pick of Dan Martin, we would have swept the top four. Oh well.)
1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) 4:36:45
2. Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) +0:03
3. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0:04
4. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) same time
5. Tom Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) +0:06
6. Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) s/t
7. Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) +0:08
8. Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) s/t
9. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:11
10. Philippe Gilbert (BMC) +0:15