Alejandro Valverde waited until the final 125 metres before unleashing a finishing kick that no one could match to seal a record-equalling third Fleche Wallonne victory in dominant style. Julian Alaphilippe and Michael Albasini completed the podium in a race that will best be remembered for being largely forgettable.
Rider of the race
It’s too easy to award our Rider of the Race to Alejandro Valverde, who won his third Fleche Wallonne – and his second in a row – at a canter, by around four bike lengths. I’m also tempted to give the nod to Julian Alaphilippe, who took up the mantle for Etixx-Quick Step when world champion and Amstel Gold winner Michal Kwiatkowski found the finish too tough. The 22-year-old Frenchman, in his second pro year, carried through the form that saw him seventh at Amstel on Sunday.
But in a race that only came to life in the final 125 metres, I’m swayed by the claims of the rider who finished a lowly 31st. Without the solo attack by Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens on the new-for-this-year penultimate climb of the Cote de Cherave, the peloton would have probably chugged all the way up to the Mur de Huy in second gear. Wellens at least accepted the opportunity presented by the new climb – averaging 8.1% with its summit just 5.5km from the finish – and animated the closing minutes, forcing the favourites’ teams to give chase. He carried a 14-second lead to the base of the Mur and on another day we might have had a genuinely thrilling grandstand finish. The 23-year-old won last year’s Eneco Tour and went on to finish fourth at Il Lombardia. He’s a strong, gritty rider who will win plenty of races before he hangs up his cleats.
Three things we liked
1. A new climb shakes the race up. I liked the inclusion of the Cote de Cherave, which had the intended effect of thinning out the pack ahead of the concluding ascent of the Mur de Huy. Yes, there were perhaps still more riders (close to 35) in contention at the base of the final climb but it did also provide the springboard for Tim Wellens’ brave but ill-fated attack. It at least ensured that the top teams had to come out to play on the run-in rather than proceed to the Mur in an orderly fashion.
2. A teaser for July. We will see the same finishing roads again in July, when stage three of the Tour de France concludes on the Mur. This added a little spice to proceedings today, with Sky sending Chris Froome out for a recce – the first time he has competed in this race since 2010 – and limping home 123rd out of 133 finishers with some nasty battle scars after a heavy crash about 12km from home. If you thought the finish to today’s race was fast and frantic as the favourites tried to congregate at the head of the peloton, just imagine it in July with a 200-strong pack hurtling into Huy with the teams of the puncheurs mixing it with the GC contenders, all jockeying for the safest positions up front. It will be spectacular. Hopefully it won’t be carnage.
3. Er, um. It’s La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday. There’s not really much else to say about one of the least memorable Fleche Wallonnes for quite a while. But not every race can be a knock-down, drag-out classic. That’s sport for you, eh?
The race in numbers
5 – Alejandro Valverde became the fifth three-time winner of Fleche Wallonne, the others being Eddy Merckx, Davide Rebellin, Marcel Kint and Moreno Argentin. (Credit: Infostrada Sports)
6 – Valverde has now finished in the top four in each of the last six Ardennes classics, finishing on the podium in all but one. The last time he finished outside the top four was at Fleche Wallonne in 2013, when he was seventh. In that span, beyond the Ardennes he has also twice finished on the podium at both the Worlds road race and Strade Bianche, been runner-up at Il Lombardia twice, and been first and second at San Sebastian. He’s nothing if not consistent.
3 – There were three Spaniards in the top five (Valverde and the Katusha pair of Joaquim Rodriquez and Dani Moreno). Sergio Henao (seventh) was the only non-European in the top ten.
1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) 5:08:22
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick Step) same time
3. Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) s/t
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) s/t
5. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) s/t
6. Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r La Mondiale) +0:04
7. Sergio Henao (Sky) s/t
8. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) s/t
9. Tom Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Garmin) s/t
10. Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo)
Link: Official race website