Etixx-QuickStep’s inability to bag a big victory this spring continued today when the Belgian team filled the bottom two steps of the Flèche Wallonne podium. Despite having strength in numbers as they made their way up the final ascent of the Mur de Huy, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won the Ardennes classic for the third consecutive year, and for the fourth time overall.
Irish man Dan Martin led the charge in the final, riding the climb aggressively before attacking in the last 300 metres. Behind him Julian Alaphilppe stuck closely to Valverde’s wheel when the Spaniard attacked, overhauling Martin, the young Frenchman was unable to take advantage.
Despite the lack of a victory, the team’s tactics went to plan.
“We made the tactic that Julian would stay in the wheel of Alejandro and beat him on the line, and I would go from a little bit further,” Martin explained. “But Alejandro knows the climb and he read our tactics perfectly. It’s difficult to beat him, but we executed our tactics perfectly.”
The performance follows the cobbled classics where Etixx-QuickStep rode aggressively but failed to win any of the major races, despite having the riders to do so.
“The cobbled classics didn’t go exactly how the team wanted, but I think that is down to the personal expectations and the personal pressure,” Martin continued.
“We go into those races wanting to win and saying that we want to win, and it’s that ambition we’re carrying for these [Ardennes] races as well. Me and Julian really wanted to win and we tried to figure out a way of beating Alejandro and, but here wasn’t that pressure, the directors said to us this morning, ‘Just go out there and race your bikes do your best.’ That’s what we did but obviously second and third… I think normally we’d be really happy.”
Though he has never won on the Mur de Huy, Martin has proved consistent on the climb and its ramps of over 20 per cent. Other than last year, when he crashed on the approach, Martin has three other top six finishes to his name, as well as finishing fourth on Stage two of last year’s Tour de France, which also finished at the top of the Mur.
Despite this, 29-year-old Martin was pleased with his personal performance.
“I rode a better climb than I’ve ever done before,” he told journalists. “Over the years I’ve always been coming from too far behind, this year I rode aggressively at the bottom, that’s maybe why I lacked a little bit of legs in the final in the last 200 metres.
“For me it’s a beautiful race. It also may be what the fans find frustrating, it’s basically a sprint up the final climb, but I love it I think it’s the most exciting and really my favourite race of the year. I don’t complain about the sprint on the climb!”
Watch: Ardennes Classics essential guide
Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège gives both Martin and Etixx-QuickStep a final opportunity to salvage a victory from the spring. It is also a race Martin won in 2013 and the Irishman sees his new-found relationship with Alaphilippe providing the team with more options.
“We race very well together and we have a very similar style how we ride in the peloton. We have a really good relationship off the bike too and that helps a lot.
“I think Liège is a race where team tactics are a lot more important and hopefully we can play off each other and bring the victory back to Etixx-QuickStep.”