Valverde Takes La Fleche Wallonne
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has won La Fleche Wallonne for the second time. The Spaniard surged past Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp-POC) in the last 200 ms to win the hilly, 199-km race in 4:36:45. Martin finished second at 0:03, and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) took third at 0:04.
Sunny skies greeted the riders at the start in Bastogne. After only five kms, a crash took down defending champion Daniel Moreno (Katusha), which the Russian squad must have found particularly unnerving because team captain Joaquim Rodriguez crashed out of the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday. Fortunately, Moreno remounted quickly.
After 20 kms, Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp-POC) attacked, and Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and Jonathan Clarke (United Healthcare) joined him. The escapees’ lead maxed out at 8:45 at 50 kms. At that point, Katusha and BMC began to chase.
On the first ascent of the Mur de Huy, the fugitives’ advantage had dropped to 5:50. Movistar and Lotto-Belisol joined the pursuit, and the lead began to drop more quickly. With about 40 kms left, Clarke was dropped and the peloton caught him with 38 kms remaining.
On the Cote d’Ahin, Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attempted to bridge up to the leaders. They were caught. On the second ascent of the Mur de Huy, with 0:30 separating the break from the bunch, Cyril Gautier (Europcar) attacked the peloton, but he was reeled in as well. Movistar and Katusha led the chase, which snared Navardauskas and Van Hecke with 12 kms to go.
With seven kms remaining, Jeremy Roy (FDJ.fr) jumped away from the peloton. Two km later, the Frenchman led the bunch by 0:10. The Katusha-led peloton reeled him in. With three kms left, Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) crashed, taking down Rodriguez and holding up Amstel Gold Race winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team), Martin, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Ag2r-La Mondiale led the field into the final ascent of the Mur de Huy. Belkin took over from the French squad. The leaders gathered at the front, with Kwiatkowski making the first move. Martin countered and took the lead, but Valverde powered past the Irishman for the win.
Valverde felt that his second win in the Ardennes (his first was in 2006) was overdue and that he had the team as well as his family to thank for it. “I'm really happy,” he said. “This one's for me, my family, my team, all my teammates, everyone who supports me. This victory means a lot to me and the rest of the team. The Ardennes resisted me in the last few years --always getting podium places, but no victories. I was coming here a bit furious. I felt strong at the Amstel, but not like today. I had good legs from the beginning. When you feel well, you have to take all chances. It turned out perfectly well at the end, but sometimes, you're doing well but you run out of luck, which I really had today.
"Those who contested the win today were not a surprise at all: all the top guys. I didn't want to get myself boxed in. I had to get in very, very good position into the final climb. When you're feeling great, you have to start climbs up front to avoid any misfortune. You can get boxed in, you have to break, you take bigger efforts, and you don't win. I was looking for Dani [Moreno], Purito [Rodriguez], Gilbert, Kwiatkowski, Daniel Martin ... there were many candidates. I was next to the barriers with 300 ms to go and couldn't get past, but as soon as I saw a gap, I followed it. I jumped away and managed to make a gap and raise my arms at the finish. Surprised? Maybe a bit, but in such steep climbs, when I feel strong, I manage to keep some extra energy and profit from it there.
"The team was superb, always there almost until the finish. Everyone fulfilled the task they were supposed to, something I'm really grateful about. Even though I say it all the time, you don't win if you haven't got a strong team. Feeling yourself well protected and seeing them taking their hearts out for you--it's really important. Now we get to Liège calmer, not relaxed at all, but with less pressure. It's a race I like, my favourite of the three, where I already won. We'll go for it. We can win or lose, but should things go right, we will be in the thick of things."
On Sunday, Valverde will be at Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2014. So will Martin, Gilbert, Kwiatkowski, Rodriguez, and Nibali. Will one of these men win? Will a dark horse take the victory? Check in at www.roadcycling.com and find out!