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Having controlled all the attacks, Valverde made his lethal acceleration inside the final few hundred meters of Mur de Huy to win a third consecutive Fleche Wallone; Alaphilippe and Martin made it two Etixx-QuickStep riders on the podium

Photo: Movistar Team

ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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DANIEL MARTIN

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FLECHE WALLONNE

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JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE

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MOVISTAR TEAM

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20.04.2016 @ 16:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) made history by becoming the first rider to win Fleche Wallonne four times when he rode to another dominant victory on the steep Mur de Huy. Having attentively responded to all attacks on the final climb, he made his acceleration inside the final 200m and managed to distance the Etixx-QuickStep pair of Julian Alaphilippe and Daniel Martin to make it three in a row in the Belgian classic.

 

In November, Alejandro Valverde announced that he would try to win the Giro d’Italia and the Olympics and would put less emphasis on the classics. In fact, he expected to only be at 80-90% for the Ardennes races which he has dominated in the past few years.

 

Valverde even played down the expectations even more when he changed his schedule to focus almost exclusively on the Italian grand tour, claiming that it was all about the Italian race. He repeated that statement after he won two stages and the overall at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon this weekend.

 

However, Valverde is known as one of the most consistent riders and is famously known for always being in excellent condition. Today he proved his pre-race predictions completely wrong as he rode to a record fourth win at Fleche Wallonne in dominant fashion.

 

As usual, it all came down to the final up the 1.3km climb of Mur de Huy whose extreme gradients of 26% always makes it a brutal end to a tough race. This year the race had been even harder as it had been raced an amazing speed but after a late attack from Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Ion Izagirre (Movistar) and Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) was neutralized with 2km to go, it was all lined up for the puncheurs.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo hit the front with Enrico Battaglin before Pieter Serry took over for Etixx-QuickStep. Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) the group onto the climb and under the flamme rouge, with Valverde riding attentively in third position behind Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE).

 

When Visconti swung off, Albasini stayed on the front and as Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Daniel Martin moved up next to him, four of the biggest favourites were lined out, ready to battle.

 

Valverde briefly upped the pace of the exploding front group but it was Rodriguez who launched the first attack. However, Valverde responded attentively and stayed on his compatriot’s wheel.

 

Instead, it was the counterattack from Martin that made the difference. Valverde jumped straight onto his wheel and only Julian Alaphilippe could hang onto the duo. Martin tried to tire Valverde by riding on the front but the Spaniard showed no signs of weakness and it was always just a matter of time before he would make his move.

He jumped inside the final 200m and after he had initially tried to follow, Alaphilippe had to surrender. Valverde had plenty of time to celebrate his win, with Alaphilippe and Martin crossing the line in second and third respectively. Wout Poels (Sky) and Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) completed the podium.

 

With Fleche Wallonne done and dusted, the series of Ardennes classics only has one race left. On Sunday, the riders will be back in action in the biggest of the hilly classics, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which is also the next WorldTour race.

 

A hilly course

The 80th edition of Fleche Wallonne was held on a very hilly course that brought the riders over 196km from Marche-en-Famenne to the top of the famous Mur de Huy. In total, the riders would tackle 12 climbs, including three passages of the Mur. The penultimate passage came with 29.5km to go and then the riders went up Cote d’Ereffe and Cote de Cherave – the latter was located just 5.5km from the finish – before they descended to the bottom of the final 1.3km ascent that averaged 9.6%.

 

Sergio Henao (Sky) who has been suspended by Sky, was the only non-starter when 199 riders rolled out for their ride through the Ardennes. They started at a breathtaking pace in what is the most eventful start to the Fleche Wallonne in recent years. The first riders to gain a significant lead were Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Topsport) and Alexey Vermeulen (LottoNL-Jumbo), but they were already caught at the 8km mark where Tomasz Marczynski (Lotto Soudal) and BMC led the peloton.

 

A dangerous group

Jacques van Rensburg (Dimension Data) built up a lead of 30 seconds after 13km of racing and suddenly it was a large group of 24 ridersthat had gathered in front with a lead of 20 seconds. After 20km, they were still 15 seconds ahead, but the peloton managed to neutralize the dangerous group.

 

Marczynski rode solo and was later joined by another 30 riders in a large group that had a lead of 16 seconds after 29 kilometers. However, it was a short-lived action and after 33km of racing, it was again back together. At the same time Thomas Koep (Stölting) left the race.

 

Cummings takes off

After an hour, the riders had covered at an impressive 45km, and there was no breakafter 50km. Five kilometers later, Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data) managed to get a lead of 25 seconds, and after a chase group was established, he had increased the it to 50 seconds at the 59km mark. Two kilometers later, Koen Bouwman (LottoNL), Silvan Dillier (BMC), Vegard Staeke outbuilding (IAM), Kiel Reijnen (Trek), Matteo Bono (Lampre), Tosh Van Der Sande (Lotto Soudal), Sander Helven (Topsport) and Quentin Pacher (Delko) made the junction, and the 9-rider group now had a lead of 1.10.

 

Mads Pedersen (Stölting) took off in pursuit and was only 14 seconds behind when Pacher led the group over the top of the first climb. The peloton was now calmed down and crested the summit 2.05 behind the leaders.

 

Pedersen makes the junction

Pedersen made contact on the day's second climb, where the lead was 2.55. It briefly went downbefore it again began to grow. It reached 3.50, but was down to 3:10 as they hit Huy for the first time.

 

Bouwman led the group over the line for the first time while the peloton reached the top three minutes later. Dario Cataldo (Astana) the opportunity to step off his bike as they passed through the finish.

 

Movistar and Katusha in control

Imanol Erviti (Movistar) and Sven Erik Bystrøm (Katusha) did the early work in the peloton and slowly started to reduce the gap which was down to 2.50 as they entered the final 75km. In what was a rare moment of calmness, the pair did well to shave another 30 seconds off the led during the next 30km.

 

As they hit the Cote de Bohisseau with less than 60km to go, the gap had dropped to less than 2 minutes and this prompted van der Sande to up the pace. Only Bono could match his pace and as the gap widened, Cummings made his move. The Brit made a huge acceleration that made the group explode and after he had tried to go straight past the leaders, he was joined by van der Sande, Bono and Dillier as they crested the summit. Stake Laengen was in lone pursuit but quickly dropped back to the rest of the original group.

 

The gap grows

In the peloton, Bystrøm ended his work and it was Erviti who set the pace as they went up the climb. However, he was losing ground and when the gap had gone out from 1.50 to 2.05, Alexey Tsatevich (Katusha) came to the fore to lend him a hand.

 

With 50km to go, the chase group was already 40 seconds behind the leaders while the peloton was at 2.05. They kept the gap stable until they hit the Cote de Solieres where the chase group split up as Helven, Reijnen and Stake Laengen surged clear. Pedersen made contact again shortly after the top.

 

Schleck crashes

In the peloton, a big crash ended the race for the Trek pair of Frank Schleck and Haimar Zubeldia and also forced Fabian Wegmann (Stölting) to spend a lot of energy to rejoin the peloton. However, Erviti and Tstevich were not slowing down and riders were constantly getting dropped.

 

Entering the final 40km, the chasers were brought back and the gap was brought down to just 1.30. Orica-GreenEDGE were now contributing to the chase with Jack Haig. The Australian, Erviti and Tsatevich emptied themselves as they sped towards the bottom of the Mur with a little more than 30km to go.

 

Cummings takes off

Tstatevich led the peloton onto the Mur 55 seconds behind the leaders before Rory Sutherland took over for Movistar. Meanwhile, Dillier surged clear from the front group before Cummings bridged the gap, leading the Swiss across the line. Ruben Fernandez (Movistar) and Björn Thurau (Wanty) joined Bono and van der Sande over the top while Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff) took over the pace-setting in the peloton.

 

Cummings went into time trial mode and quickly distanced Dillier, increasing the gap from 35 to 50 seconds as he entered the final 25km. Katusha took over the pace-setting with Bystrøm and Tiago Machado and they swallowed up the chasers with 22km to go. Thurau tried to insist but he had no chance.

 

Cummings is caught

Movistar took over the pace-setting with Sutherland who had reduced the gap to 45 seconds with 20km to go. It was down to 35 seconds when he hit the Cote d’Ereffe where Fernandez set a brutal pace. In a matter of a few hundred metres, he brought the Brit back and made the peloton explode, with Lars Petter Nordhaug, Simon Geschke and Ryder Hesjedal all losing contact.

 

Fernandez and Machado set the pace until they hit a small climb with 13km to go where Marczynski attacked. Carlos Betancur slowly reeled him in for Movistar who then sent Ion Izagirre on the attack when Bob Jungels and Georg Preidler accelerated. The trio reached the top with a small advantage.

 

A chase group is formed

Katusha and Tinkoff started to chase 10 seconds behind the leaders. However, Izagirre was just following wheels.

 

Laurens De Plus, Visconti, Mikael Cherel, Poels, Albasini, Angel Vicioso and Jurgen Van den Broeck established a chase group as the two Katusha riders hadn’t realized that they had split the field. That forced Tinkoff to chase had in the peloton and they neutralized the move at the bottom of the Cote de Cherave.

 

Wellens makes his move

Jungels and Izagirre dropped Preidler while Machado, Albasini and De Plus took off in pursuit. However, they were quickly brought back and instead Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) took off in pursuit.

 

Izagirre was given the green light to take his own chance and surged clear over the top but Jungels got back on the descent. Wellens crested the summit 10 seconds later. Further back, Petr Vakoc (Etixx-QuickStep), Igor Anton (Dimension Data) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) were dropped.

 

Despite having Jungels in the break, Etixx-QuickStep started to chase hard with De Plus and Pieter Serry. Angel Vicioso also took a few turns for Katusha and that spelled the end for the break just 2km from the finish. Hence, it all came down to the usual uphill sprint where Valverde ruled again.

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