Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) chased down a late breakaway and then prevailed in a rain-soaked dash to the line to win his third Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.
Dani Moreno (Katusha) had attacked a small lead group just ahead of the final kilometer, and as the favorites hesitated he opened a significant gap. Finally Valverde took the initiative to drag him back, and despite bringing most of the other hopefuls along with him the 35-year-old Spaniard found the legs to kick to the victory at the end.
Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick-Step) crossed second with Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) third.
“Yes, it’s incredible,” Valverde said. “I think it was just getting away from me at the end. I had to attack to close down Moreno and sprint. Second in Amstel [Gold], first in Flèche [Wallonne], and then a win here — I’m very happy.”
The looping route around the Belgian Ardennes served up 10 major ascents in just under six and a half hours. The Col du Rosier at 194km was the longest at 4.4km, but there were other notable grinds, among them the Cote de Stockeu at 12 percent, and the Redoute, Roche-aux-Faucons, and Saint-Nicolas, all around 9 percent.
With 80km remaining in the 253km monument the peloton was in pursuit of a five-man break some 30 seconds up the road: Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida); Marco Minaard (Wanty-Group Gobert); Anthony Turgis (Cofidis); Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Argon 18); and Matteo Montaguti (AG2r La Mondiale).
Astana, on the sharp end for Vincenzo Nibali, sent Andriy Grivko off the front with 77km to go. Gorka Izaguirre (Movistar) followed to keep an eye on things for Valverde. And soon Orica-GreenEdge sent Simon Yates along to keep them company. Others followed and before long the small breakaway had become a large front group.
Next to try their luck were Michele Scarponi and Tanel Kangert (Astana), Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) and Manuele Boaro (Tinkoff-Saxo). They took a couple dozen seconds over the bunch, led by Katusha on behalf of Rodriguez.
The two Astanas soon left the others behind, save Chaves. And with 60km to go they had built a gap of nearly a minute.
With 40km remaining their advantage had begun dropping steadily, until a big crash took down or blocked Nibali, defending champion Simon Gerrans (Orica), Dan Martin and Nathan Haas (Cannondale-Garmin), Nicolas Roche (Sky), Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) and a host of others with La Redoute on the horizon.
Etixx-Quick-Step took charge at the front of the chase and resumed hacking away at the gap. Incredibly, Gerrrans hit the deck again, and this time he limped to the side of the road and sat down, his race clearly done.
Ahead, Kangert lost contact, leaving Scarponi and Chaves out front. And with 30km to race, they clung to a half-minute’s advantage. Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky) launched a solo pursuit, but it didn’t last long as the peloton paid close attention. And with just under 24km to go — and reports of heavy rain at the finish — the two leaders soon felt the chase breathing down their necks and with a quick look round they called it a day.
The Roche-aux-Faucons and Saint-Nicolas awaited. Katusha was on point as the bunch hit the penultimate climb. Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) was first to shoot away, and Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) followed, just as the rain began to fall on the race.
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) slipped away and bridged to the leaders. A smallish chase emerged briefly only to be brought back, and with 10km remaining Zdenek Stybar (Etixx) drove the chase on the wet roads with Saint-Nicolas yet to come.
The three leaders had only 12 seconds as the final climb began. Behind, Valverde was parked on Stybar’s wheel. And then he took the point, dogged by Moreno. The escapees retrieved, Nibali was next to give it the gas, and riders began popping off the back, among them world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx), with Samuel Sanchez and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing).
Over the top of the Saint-Nicolas perhaps 15 riders remained in contention for the victory, with Caruso setting the pace. And as they hit the final kilometer it seemed anyone’s race to win.
Moreno went first, just ahead of the red kite, and he pried open a small gap. Valverde hesitated, waiting for someone else to do the work of chasing, but nobody did. Finally, Valverde launched, but Rodriguez followed, and the two dragged the others with them up to Moreno and into the final corner.
With 100 meters to go Valverde found that extra gear and took the victory.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “It’s a monument of cycling and I think that winning here three times means I’ve entered a little bit into the history of this sport.”
Alaphilippe was delighted to have made the podium in his first try at Liège, especially after getting caught up in the crash that took down Martin, Roche and the others.
“I had to chase for a lot of kilometers and finally rejoined the peloton at the top of La Redoute, so you can imagine the effort it took on that kind of a climb to catch the group,” he said.
With team leader Kwiatkowski distanced, Alaphilippe was free to take his own chances, but he found himself poorly positioned in the finale.
“I was able to make it and contest the sprint, but in the last kilometer I was maybe a bit too far back,” he said. “But even if I was better positioned I think it would have been impossible to beat Valverde today. He was the strongest rider and he deserved the victory.”
Rodriguez, for his part, bitterly regretted what he saw as another lost opportunity.
“First of all, it’s really difficult, almost impossible to beat Valverde in a sprint finish,” he said.
“At Flèche we [Katusha] didn’t attack at the right time and we were disappointed about that. Today, when I saw Dani attack, I was delighted because I thought he had the legs to make it.”
Moreno was swept up before the line, a fate Rodriguez thinks he might have avoided.
“But if it had been me in Dani’s place, I might have been able to hold on,” he said. “I see the glass as totally empty. I was here in great form but I didn’t win. It’s the race I like the most but it’s very difficult to win and once again I’ve missed out on a possibility of winning it.
“It’s true that I worked well with the team but I leave bitter.”
Valverde now leads the UCI WorldTour with 338 points.