Rival riders and team staff are impressed with Spaniard Alejandro Valverde's performance on the wet and cold cobbles in Belgium's Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.
The stage race and Ardennes star from Team Movistar lined up in the one-day race to taste the cobbles prior to the Tour de France's 'Paris-Roubaix stage' this summer. Not only did Valverde ride them – like team-mate Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) – but he attacked them.
"Maybe they say it's training, but it's to win," race winner Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) said. "They are also favourites everywhere they start.
"We had a good impression of him, he was with our leader group after the Taaienberg, and we'd gone full gas on the climb. Then you know he's not here to train."
Valverde finished in one of the main chase groups behind the winning move with Lampaert. He rode at the front on the cobbles and attacked on the climbs in the final 60 kilometres. He finished in 11th, right alongside Paris-Roubaix winners Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors).
"A Spaniard on the cobbles, yes, but he's not just any Spaniard, he's one of the best riders in the last century. I really look up to him. He's really a talented rider and always in an attack mode. I have respect for his performance," Lampaert continued.
"You know with Valverde, and Sunday [in the Tour of Flanders] with Vincenzo Nibali: they are really strong and talented guys. They can do everything. You have to watch them. You have to... You can't let them go like they are nobody. If they come here, it's not for training."
Valverde won the Abu Dhabi Tour and the Volta a Catalunya stage races so far this year. He was one of the lightest riders in the winning moves, among the big cobble smashers heading towards the Tour of Flanders on Sunday and Paris-Roubaix the following week.
"He surprised me because he's thin, very skinny. He's 61kg," Quick-Step Floors boss Patrick Lefevere said.
"I saw him attacking on the Kruisberg. I said, 'What the hell is this?' He's an amazing rider. You can only say chapeau to a rider like this."
"Surprised? Not really, he's in such good shape," Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) added. "You know in those races that if you have shape, you are always in the right place at the right moment. When you have form, you sense the moves and you have the power to stay at the front.
"Bardet and Quintana? No, I just saw Valverde always up there. He's an excellent rider. A lot of respect for him, he can do everything."
Bardet placed 73rd and Quintana 60th. They all go their separate ways heading toward the Tour de France goal this July. Valverde, however, may stick around Belgium to race the Tour of Flanders this Sunday.
"It's difficult," said Movistar Sports Director José García Acosta, "but with Valverde you never know."
If not, Valverde will race the País Vasco stage race in preparation for the Ardennes Classics. He would match Eddy Merckx's all-time record if he wins his fifth Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I have to be content with the race,” Valverde said. “It was a hard race. Very hard."
"For Flanders? We'll see, we'll think about it tonight."
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