Alejandro Valverde breaks even more records
Having won a record-extending fifth edition of the Flèche Wallonne earlier this week, the irrepressible Alejandro Valverde now becomes the oldest ever winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in the process breaking the record for most podium finishes in the Ardennes Classics (16) previously held by Eddy Merckx.
There was a time when – like Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) earlier in their careers too – Valverde would regularly make the podium in all sorts of races but too frequently miss out on first place.
As he’s got older, however, he has added a ruthless streak to his racing, with victory today the second time in three years he has won the Flèche Wallonne/Liège-Bastogne-Liège double, to add to overall victories early this season at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour of the Basque Country.
At the Ardennes Classic, it’s got to the point that he looks almost unbeatable. He’s ridden the same race in the past four editions of Flèche Wallonne and won each time, and everybody knew that his was the wheel to follow in the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège today, yet no rider in the long, single-file line behind him could do anything to match his acceleration in the sprint.
Dan Martin foiled by his nemesis again
If all of Alejandro Valverde’s results over the past four seasons were removed then Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) would have two Fleche Wallonne titles and today’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège added to his palmares.
Valverde has become Martin’s nemesis in the Ardennes Classics, to the extent that he Irishman wryly joked after Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne that he may ‘have to wait until he retires’ to win.
He tried to catch his rival out in the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège by bursting out of the group of favourites start his sprint early, but Valverde had enough left in the tank to hesitate, launch his own move and then catch and pass Martin comfortably before the finish line.
The Quick-Step Floors rider is going to have to go back to the drawing board to figure out a way to beat Valverde, who doesn’t look likely to retire any time soon.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège isn’t what it used to be
As the most arduous Ardennes Classic, and one of the most demanding races of the season, Liège-Bastogne-Liège has been traditionally a very selective race.
But that’s not been the case in recent years. In each of the past five editions since 2013, the eventual winner has either left it until a sprint or remained part of the peloton until after the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, while sizable lead groups are now remaining intact prior to the finale.
The race is not exactly easier, but riders have tended to race it cautiously making the race a hard-fought attritional affair but one that does not see many splits. A case in point was the performance of Michael Matthews (Sunweb), who was never successfully dropped by his rivals, but was worn out enough to finish fourth behind inferior sprinters.
With the race becoming more predictable and with a lack of action before the finale, there is a case for the organisers to revamp the route – a new course did, after all, last week produce one of the most entertaining Amstel Gold Race editions in years.
No luck for any attackers
It’s been a spring of exciting racing and long-range attacks – the Tour of Flanders was won by a historically mammoth effort by Philippe Gilbert (BMC), a small break held off the sprinters at Milan-San Remo, and a new Amstel Gold route prompted the decisive selection to be made far earlier than usual.
But all the ambitious moves made during Liège-Bastogne-Liège came to nothing, from the spirited Cofidis pair of Anthony Perez and Stephane Rossetto who were the final survivors of the day’s persistent early break, to the late individual moves of Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac) prior to and on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas respectively.
Although Sky used Sergio Henao relatively aggressively, the approach of the major teams was typified by Orica-Scott. Despite being armed with a squad full of potential winners, they opted to used their assets to chase down attacks rather than instigate them – Roman Kreuziger marked attacks on the early climbs, while Adam Yates dragged back Dan Martin’s late attack for Valverde, in the hope of setting his own leader Michael Albasini up for a sprint (he ultimately only finished seventh).
Given that the bold moves of first Formolo and then Martin were scuppered on the draggy uphill finish in Ans, perhaps one area the organisers can look to shake things up is by changing to the finish to an easier finishing straight, that might ease riders’ fears that an early attack means blowing up before the finish line.
Touching tribute to Michele Scarponi
The 2017 Liège-Bastogne-Liège was of course raced under the melancholy shadow of the tragic death of Michele Scarponi.
Tribute was paid to Scarponi at the start line, through a round of applause in his honour, and many of his former teammates and friends visibly emotional.
The commendations continued at the finish line, when Alejandro Valverde dedicated his victory to the Italian. Valverde had already pledged to donate the prize money to Scarponi’s family if he were to win.