At last, an exciting Flèche Wallonne
We’ve waited years for a Flèche Wallonne as exciting as this one.
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It wasn’t just that the Alejandro Valverde hegemony was broken – it was the way the race played out before the Mur de Huy that made the 2018 edition the best in recent memory.
The middle of the race was characterised by multiple attacks, with a six-man group eventually forming and opening a threatening gap over the peloton.
The fact the group contained Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) was what made the situation especially intriguing. Had he once again caught the favourites off guard, just as he did to win Milan-San Remo?
Movistar were initially lent on to do all of the pace-setting in the peloton, but only had Mikel Landa to do so after all the earlier attacking had substantially reduced the group’s size. Riding alone, he failed to make much inroads, as the advantage appeared to swing firmly in favour of Nibali and co.
But as the finish neared more and more teams decided it, and ultimately the bunch had the fire-power to bring them back.
Still, the chase had made for some really exciting racing, and the final sprint up the Mur de Huy was as spectacular as ever, only this time with a twist ending and new winner.
Julian Alaphilippe comes of age
For the last few season, Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) has appeared the likely successor to Valverde as king of the Ardennes.
Since the 2015 spring, when he finished second behind the Spaniard in both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Alaphilippe has steadily improved, again finishing second in 2016 at Flèche Wallonne, before an injury prevented him from riding the 2017 edition having looked to be in the form of his life during the preceding weeks.
The win also extends what has been a sensational run for Quick-Step Floors this spring. They played another tactically flawless race, placing Maximilian Schachmann in the key six-man break, and only moving to the front of the peloton on the run-in to the final ascent of the Mur de Huy, once it had become clear that Schachmann was going to be caught.
They managed to place Alaphilippe in a perfect position on the finishing climb, while Valverde – whose was low on team-mates by this point – found himself a little further back. Alaphilippe capitalised on this small head start when he opened up his sprint, to defeat his Spanish rival by what was ultimately a comfortable gap of four seconds.
The win might be remembered as the moment Alaphilippe usurped Valverde as the peloton’s quickest uphill sprinter.
Valverde’s run finally comes to an end
The many variables of bike racing means that no result is ever guaranteed, but it’s fair to say that among the surest bets in recent years has been Alejandro Valverde to win Flèche Wallonne.
It’s not just that he’s won the last four editions – it’s the fact that he has looked unbeatable in that time, never for a minute suggesting that he was going to let anyone else beat him to the line.
This year, however, was different, as there appeared to be a consolidated effort among the other rivals to prevent a straightforward procession to the foot of the Mur de Huy, which is how Valverde has won each of the previous four editions.
How much of a difference did these attacks make? They certainly put Movistar under pressure, who were forced to do all the chasing even when down to just one domestique, Mikel Landa
However, the race did ultimately culminate in their favoured scenario – a sprint up the Mur de Huy. And, though surrounded by less team-mates than he’d have liked, and perhaps not as well positioned, Valverde still possessed a lethal kick in the sprint to finish second.
The main difference this year was not, therefore, was not Valverde’s lacking. Rather, it was the improvement of Alaphilippe that ultimately put paid to the Spaniard’s four-year run.
What’s up with Dan Martin?
Although he has never won Flèche Wallonne, Dan Martin’s (UAE Emirates) record in this race is exemplary – second in 2014 and 2017, third in 2016, and in the top six on two other occasions.
That’s why it was so surprising to see what happened to the Irishman today. As early as the penultimate ascent of the Mur de Huy, Martin was spotted being dropped out the back of the peloton. Though his UAE Emirates team tried to pace him back, it was clear he was well short of the legs required to challenge for victory, and the chase was later abandoned.
Martin has been on poor form all season, and is without a win since moving to UAE Emirates for this season. However, he typically arrives at the Ardennes as a major contender regardless of his prior form, suggesting that something else might be up with him at the moment.
Is he ill? Or carrying some sort of injury? Either way, Martin seems unlikely to feature as a contender for Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Anna van der Breggen triumphant again at Flèche Wallonne
Although one long-lasting run of Flèche Wallonne victories was put to an end today, another was extended as Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) won her fourth successive edition of the race.
As usual, Boels-Dolmans made the most of their strength in numbers, with Megan Guarnier part of a four-woman group established on the first ascent of the Mur de Huy.
Able to sit back while other teams lead the chase, Van der Breggen was fresh enough when the riders next reached the climb for the second and final time to bridge the gap up to the leading quartet along with Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (Cervelo-Bigla), putting her in the ideal position for the sprint. With the finish line in sight he produced a burst of speed that no-one could respond, with Moolman Pasio finishing runner-up some two seconds behind.
To complete what was yet another dominant performance from Boels-Dolmans, Megan Guarnier rounded off the podium with third place – the third time she has finished there in the past four editions.
All this sets up this Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where other teams will have to think of some way to break Boels-Dolmans’ stranglehold on the peloton.