Spain's Alejandro Valverde completed his doping ban return with a win in Flèche Wallonne today. He shot ahead like an arrow on the climb's steep slope and left Daniel Martin and young Pole, Michal Kwiatkowski behind. Cheers and some boos greeted him at the finish line above Huy, Belgium.
"This victory," team Movistar's Valverde said, "is very important because it puts an end to a long period without success in the classics."
The 33-year-old won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Clásica San Sebastián one-day races in 2008. However, investigators were on his case as part of the Operación Puerto doping scandal. Work by the Italians, who linked him via DNA to recovered blood bags, led to a two-year ban.
Valverde returned in the 2012 Tour Down Under with a stage win. This year, though, he is nearing the form he had in the years that saw him win two editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, stages at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España overall classification.
He won three stages and the overall classification at the Vuelta a Andalucía, and the Vuelta a Murcia, Roma Maxima and GP Indurain one-day races. A big one-day classic was all that was missing to complete his comeback.
Philippe Gilbert rode away from him and everyone else to win the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday. Valverde fought for second behind, but managed only fourth place.
"I was not vengeful over the Amstel Gold Race, I just want to win," Valverde said. "In Amstel Gold, Gilbert was unbeatable. He was more vulnerable here."
Martin pipped Kwiatkowski for second place and placed three seconds behind Valverde. He said, "Alejandro was the strongest today. With 100 metres to go, I definitely thought I had it, but he blew past."
They now turn their attention to Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the most prestigious of the three Ardennes Classics. Gilbert along with today's top three finishers are considered favourites to win.
"I knew I had been training well, but training's different to racing," 2013 Liege winner Martin said. "This second place is my first result of the year. It's a good confirmation before Sunday and of course, the Giro d'Italia. It's nice to have a confidence boost before that."
If Valverde won, it would match his 2006 and 2008 wins and further cement his return. "I like all the classics," he said, "but Liège-Bastogne-Liège is very special for me."
Alejandro Valverde just holds off the peloton to take the win in Rome
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