Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) continued his best ever season start when he won his first Ardennes classic since his comeback from doping suspension at the Fleche Wallonne. When it all came down to the expected uphill sprint on the steep Mur de Huy, the Spaniard timed his move perfectly to easily pass Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and take his second win in the Belgian classic.
Since coming back from doping suspension, Alejandro Valverde has only become better and better and has taken numerous victories and places of honour. However, the big win in a classic has so far eluded him but today he finally got it right when the 78th edition of the Fleche Wallonne was decided in the traditional uphill sprint on the brutally steep Mur de Huy.
Experience counts for a lot on the feared climb and as a past winner and multiple podium finisher, Valverde knows the ascent perfectly. While Bauke Mollema (Belkin) and Michal Kwiatkowski both hit out a bit too early, the Spaniard bided his time but cleverly followed all moves.
He briefly seemed to be boxed a bit when Daniel Martin accelerated to close the gap to the fading Kwiatkowski who had opened a small gap but when the door opened for the Movistar leader, the outcome was never in doubt. The Spaniard produced a powerful acceleration to easily pass both riders and opened up a big gap at the line, crossing it 3 seconds ahead of Martin. Kwiatkowski held on to take his first ever podium in a classic when he held off Mollema in the battle for third.
Valverde had shown his intentions all days as his team had ridden hard on the climbs to make the race tough for the a rider like Amstel winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) who is less than a pure climber. The Belgian was well-placed at the bottom of the Mur but when the going got tough, he quickly faded back and could only manage 10th.
The race was dominated by the Katusha team who led the chase for most of the day and produced a splendid team performance to have almost the entire team in the 50-rider group that approached the bottom of the Mur. However, the bad luck continued for the Russian team when Joaquim Rodriguez went down for the second race in a row, hitting the deck less than 5km from the finish. Even though he was unhurt, he lost all chances for a repeat of his 2012 win.
Their captain, however, was always likely to be defending champion Daniel Moreno but the Spaniard was not as strong as he was 12 months ago and like Gilbert, he quickly faded away on the Mur. As he could only manage 9th, it was not three in a row for Katusha in the midweek Ardennes classic.
The series of hilly one-day races continues on Sunday with the biggest race of them all. The 100th edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege will bring the classics season to a close and Valverde will look to repeat the double in the Walloon classics that he took 8 years ago.
A legendary finish
The 78th Fleche Wallonne was held on a slightly modified course that had been created in an attempt to make the race less predictable and more aggressive. The start of the 199km classic had been moved to Bastogne from where the riders headed along flat roads to the hilly area around Huy where they went up to climbs before passing the steep and legendary Mur de Huy for the first time. The second part of the race consisted of a big and a small circuit that included a combined total of 8 climbs and both ended at the top of the Mur. The final circuit had been shortened to just 23.5km, meaning that the penultimate passage of the Mur was now closer to the finish, and it contained the Cote d'Ereffe in addition to the finishing climb. It all ended at the top of the brutally steep wall in Huy that is the traditional and spectacular end to one of the most iconic classics.
The race took off under beautiful weather conditions and that may have inspired the riders to their very fast start. In the Amstel Gold Race, the break went right from the gun but this time there was much bigger battle to get into the day's early move.
Moreno goes down
While the attacking animated the race, a big crash at the 5.5km mark involved last year's winner Daniel Moreno (Katusha) but luckily all riders were able to continue. The aggressiveness continued all the way to the 20km mark when the right attack was finally launched.
Recent Circuit de la Sarthe winner Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp) took off and he was joined by Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen) who was already in the long break last Sunday, and Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthCare). While the peloton stopped for a natural break, they started to build a gap that reached 2.20 after 29km of racing.
Katusha lead the chase
While it was informed that the riders had covered an impressive 49.4km during the first hour of the race, the peloton was content to let the escapees build a gap that reached a maximum of 8.40 at the 53km mark. As Moreno was apparently unhurt in his crash, however, the Katusha team started to chase and brought the gap down to less than 8 minutes where they kept it stable for some time.
With the gap at 7.30, the BMC team of Amstel winner Philippe Gilbert joined the chase work and while Van Hecke led the escapees over the first climb of the day, the two teams combined forces to bring the advantage down to 6.55. When Van Hecke was again first at the top of the second climb, however, it was back up to 6.55 as the peloton rode at a gentle pace on the slopes and the Belgian was again first at the first passage of the Mur de Huy.
More teams join the chase
The peloton again accelerated and when they hit the Cote d'Ereffe with 75km to go, they had the advantage down to 6.20. At this point, Movistar and Lotto Belisol have also started to chase and with four teams working together, it was a difficult task for the three escapees.
Dmitry Kozontchuk (Katuha), Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Movistar), Sander Armee (Lotto Belisol), and Larry Warbasse (BMC) did the early work and their hard pace started to put riders under pressure. Meanwhile, Van Hecke again crested the summit of the climb in first position.
Trek kick into action
With 61km to go, the gap was still around the 6-minute mark and this prompted Trek to also start to chase. The team put Boy Van Poppel on the front and this had an effect on the advantage which started to come down more quickly.
The battle for position was about to intensify and Lampre briefly moved to the front with Nelson Oliveira before again leaving to Gutierrez. He was joined by Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Danilo Wyss (BMC) and Matthew Busche (Trek) on the front as the peloton gradually got smaller and smaller.
Clarke is dropped
On the Cote de Bohisseau with 47km to go, Clarke was dropped from the escapees who were now only 3.50 ahead. The Australian quickly lost ground and was back in the peloton just a few kilometres later.
All the work was now left to Vorganov and Wyss who led the peloton onto the Cote d'Ahin. This was when Movistar decided to make the race tougher as they asked Imanol Erviti and later Jesus Herrada to put down the hammer.
Rolland launches an attack
The peloton now exploded to pieces while Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Jan Bakelants (OPQS) launched an attack. However, Katusha had no intention of letting things get out of control and so Angel Vicioso brought things back together before being replaced by his teammate Alberto Losada.
While IAM captain Mathias Frank had a puncture at the worst possible moment, the pace intensified as the peloton approached the Mur de Huy for the second time. Bob Jungels hit the front for Trek while behind his teammate Andy Schleck fell off the pace.
Gautier takes off
Amael Moinard (BMC) led the peloton up the climb with a 1.30 gap to the escapees but the pace was not hard enough for Movistar. Herrada went back to the front and he rode so hard that a gaps opened up at the front.
Herrada and Cyril Gautier (Europcar) were suddenly ahead and Gautier saw his chance to attack. Herrada fell back to a group with Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha), Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) and Tim Wellens (Lotto Belisol) while Bakelants tried to join them a bit further back.
BMC bring it back together
This was a dangerous situation for BMC and so Ben Hermans went straight to the front to bring back the Caruso group. Vicioso took over for Katusha and they also reeled Gautier in.
Europcar were very aggressive and Romain Sicard tried to get clear twice but Vicioso's pace made it impossible to get clear. With 5 riders on the front, Katusha were now in complete control while their key rider Rodriguez was taking it easy at the back.
On the Cote d'Ereffe, Navardauskas was briefly dropped but he managed to rejoin Van Hecke while Romain Bardet (Ag2r) and Wellens launched an attack, passing the early escapees in the process. Kolobnev kept the gap down and over the top Gianluca Brambilla closed it down for OPQS.
Herrada went back to work for Movistar as Jeremy Roy (FDJ) launched a strong attack on a small uncategorized climb. He opened a solid gap but Vicioso, Kolobnev and Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r) kept it firmly under control.
Rodriguez goes down
He was brought back with 5km to go when a crash brought down Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Rodriguez, Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE) while Frank Schleck (Trek) were held up behind. Up ahead, the peloton was speeding towards the bottom of the Mur with Cameron Meyer leading the main group onto the lower slopes with captain Michael Albasini on his wheel.
Bardet attacked right from the bottom and opened a nice gap but Caruso set a brutal pace for Katusha that brought him back. The main group was now exploding and when Mollema upped the pace, Gilbert fell off.
Kwiatkowski was the next to hit out and he got a nice little gap while the other favourites bided their time. When the Pole started to fade, Martin upped the pace but behind him the door opened for Valverde. The Spaniard put down the hammer to open a big gap to all his rivals and conquer the Mur de Huy for the second time in his career.
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