After a couple of near-misses in recent weeks, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe came correct on Wednesday in Flèche Wallonne, winning atop the Mur de Huy finish climb.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s star rider, winner of Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo earlier this season, won the hilly Belgian race for the second year in a row ahead of Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) was a distant third in the grind to the finish after 195 kilometers.
“Last year, I notched up my first big victory here, so being able to repeat that success gives me a lot of joy, but this tastes differently because this edition was far more difficult,” Alaphilippe said.
Along the way, Alaphilippe overcame a flat tire late in the race that forced him to chase back to the field with 40km to go.
The remnants of the day’s early breakaway entered the final 50 kilometers with about a minute’s advantage. American Robin Carpenter (Rally-UHC) was one of the three off the front, but their escape came to an end with about 30km to go.
Around that time, several crashes disrupted the race and spoiled the day for a few key favorites.
Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Roman Kreuziger (Dimension Data), and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) were all out of the running before the decisive final climbs.
“Six out of seven riders were involved in crashes, some of them multiple,” said Mitchelton-Scott team director Matt White. “Lucky for us is that nobody was seriously injured but obviously Adam Yates going down with Nick Schultz and four or five others coming in with one lap to go, that was our day done.”
With a more difficult finish circuit on offer for this 83rd edition of the race, Thomasz Marczynski (Lotto-Soudal) took off solo, about 18km from the finish.
Sensing an opportunity and free from his domestique duties with Pozzovivo crashed out, Bahrain-Merida’s Matej Mohoric gave chase.
However, those two didn’t have the power to fend off the chasing peloton. Plus, the windy conditions leading into the final climbs made for a difficult ride off the front.
The race was all back together by the bottom of the finish climb, in keeping with the usual race dynamics of Flèche Wallonne.
Alaphilippe said the headwind made the finish climb even more difficult this time.
“The final 300 meters of the race were really hard, due to the headwind on the Mur, but I left it late and timed my acceleration perfectly,” he said.
The Danish climber Fuglsang hit out first, quickly getting a small gap on the peloton as the climb ramped up. Alaphilippe responded and soon had ridden across the gap. With this duo off the front, Flèche Wallonne was looking very similar to Sunday’s Amstel Gold race, where Alaphilippe and Fuglsang collaborated in a late attack.
This time around, though, the duo would not be caught by the riders behind.
“[Our plan was not] trying it in the final hundred meters, but right from halfway the climb to put the more explosive guys under pressure,” said Fuglsang, explaining his early move. “That kind of succeeded, only thing was that Julian Alaphilippe couldn’t be stopped. When he passed me I thought I could still overtake him before the finish, but I had nothing left for the final meters.”
Into the final 100 meters, Alaphilippe launched his trademark acceleration. Fuglsang gutted out one last kick on Alaphilippe’s right side, but it was not enough to come past the flying Frenchman.
Ulissi was pleased with his podium result considering that he had also tried a late attack on the final circuit.
“I must say that I made a great final climb, very consistent,” the Italian said. “I was also a little surprised because the last 200 meters have always been a bit impossible for me, but not this time. We also moved very well as a team, first with Henao in the breakaway of the first lap, and then with Rui Costa, who tried to help me in the final.”
The result bodes well for Alaphilippe’s bid to win his second monument classic on Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.