Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) ended years of dominance by Alejandro Valverde at La Flèche Wallonne, beating the Movistar rider to the line at the 2018 edition of the mid-week Ardennes Classic.
Alaphilippe finished four seconds in front of Valverde after following a powerful effort by Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal) mid-way up the climb that saw the pair drift clear of the main group.
The Frenchman was then able to round Vanendert in the final 100m and drop him, with Valverde having to make an effort from a long-way back to try and catch Alaphilippe.
For a moment it looked like the five-time winner would make the catch, but Alaphilippe was able to kick again in the final metres to gap Valverde who looked to be out of power.
Vanendert, who had been working for Wellens, was able to hold on for third place while Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton-Scott) took fourth and the versatile Michael Matthews (Sunweb) taking fifth.
It’s the first French win at La Flèche Wallonne for 21 years, with Alaphilippe taking the biggest victory of his career so far.
How it happened
The riders set out for the 82nd edition of La Flèche Wallonne in beautiful sunshine from Seraing, with 198.5km on the cards.
Romain Hardy (Fortuneo-Samsic), Anthony Roux (FDJ), Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Anthony Perez (Cofidis), Antoine Warnier (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic), Patrick Müller (Vital Concept), Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Hansgrohe), Romain Combaud (Delko Marseille Provence) formed the day’s early breakaway group, with the bunch allowing a 4-30 maximum gap to stretch out.
Things remained fairly serene until the first of three ascents of the Mur de Huy, with the break holding 2-20 at the bottom of climb with 59.2km to go.
But the favourites’ teams were not keen on keeping thing’s calm for long, with a number of riders pushing on on the Mur to put Valverde’s Movistar team under pressure.
Rob Power (Mitchelton-Scott) pushed on towards the top of the climb, dragging out a small group of big name riders including Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), Rui Costa (UAE), Mikel Landa (Movistar), Ion Izagirre (Bahrain), Michael Gogl (Trek), Sam Oomen (Sunweb) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) but they were quickly recovered by the bunch as they struggled to form much cohesion between them.
But that move meant the bunch had really increased in pace, and the breakaway’s advantage soon fell and it was all over for them with 47km to go, as Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain) tried to attack.
That dragged out around 30 riders clear at the front with 45km to go, but that again was eventually neutralised.
With the break caught though it was inevitable a group would try to get clear again, and Nibali, Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott), Tanel Kangert (Astana), Max Schachmann (Quick-Step), as well as Anthony Roux and Cesare Benedetti from the original break, drifted off the front and gained 20 seconds on the bunch.
The fierce action up front put a number of riders in trouble though, with one of the pre-race favourites Dan Martin (UAE) dropped with 26km to go, quickly falling to 1-26 down on the lead group which drawn its gap out to 51 seconds
That gap began to instil some panic in the peloton, with Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski working with Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) and riders from Dimension Data to try and bring the gap back of now 56 seconds down with 16.6km.
Mikel Landa (Movistar) had been setting the pace at the front of the bunch for a number of kilometres this points, but was dropped off on a climb with 13km to go, leaving Valverde alone, but amazingly, came back with 9.6km to go as the gap came down to 30 second.
Up in the lead group Jack Haig accelerated on the penultimate of the Côte de Cherave, dropping Roux and Bennedetti with 6.5km to go as they tried to hold on to the gap.
But despite that move from the young Australian, they only had 14 seconds at the top of that climb, and it looked inevitable they’d be caught on the fierce 26 per cent maximum slopes of the Mur de Huy.
Haig and Schachmann were able to go clear with 3km remaining from Nibali and Kangert, but Haig was quickly caught by the bunch as they took on the slopes of the Mur with 1.8km to go.
Schachmann however, remained out front, grinding his way up the climb and forcing Lotto-Soudal’s Vanendert make the chase in an effort for his leader Tim Wellens, while Schachmann’s team-mate waited calmly behind.
But Vanendert’s effort saw Wellens unable to hold the wheel, and he went clear of the main bunch with Alaphilippe taking after him and sitting on his wheel.
That pair passed Schachmann, and Alaphilippe only had to bide his time before launching his effort towards the finishing stretch around Vanendert.
Valverde had found himself left behind by the pair, and seemingly had just about timed it well enough that he might catch Alaphilippe with one last effort.
The Quick-Step man was able to kick again though, and Valverde sat back in the saddle and faded as Alaphilippe crossed the line in victory, unable to celebrate due to his exertions. Vanendert, who had been riding in service of Wellens, was able to hang on and claim third place for his Belgian team.
La Flèche Wallonne 2018 (198.5km)
1 Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, in 4-53-37
2 Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar Team, at 4s
3 Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at 6s
4 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Mitchelton-Scott
5 Michael Matthews (Aus) Team Sunweb
6 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo
7 Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal
8 Maximilian Schachmann (Ger) Quick-Step Floors
9 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale, all same time
10 Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 12s