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Who has won more races than any other rider so far in 2018, yet has never won Amstel Gold Race in 11 tries? Alejandro Valverde.
The ageless Spanish star, who turns 38 next week, returns to the race that’s proven most elusive for the Movistar captain who already counts nine wins on his palmares this season.
Despite dominating the Ardennes for much of his career, the stubby climbs and narrow roads of the nearby Limburg region in southern Holland have proven too complicated for Valverde.
“I’ve been close before,” Valverde said in an earlier interview. “Sometimes it’s a question of luck. Of course, I would like to win it. It’s one that’s missing.”
Of the major one-day races he’s started in his career, Amstel Gold Race — along with the world championships — is the one that’s proven most elusive. In 11 career starts, he’s been twice second (in 2013 and 2015) and once third in 2008.
Amstel Gold Race is renowned for its narrow roads and explosive climbs. Positioning is key as crashes invariably break up the peloton. The route has changed over the arc of Valverde’s career, and there are more changes in store for this year’s 53rd edition of the Dutch classic.
“The final has changed again, so we will have narrower roads in the last kilometers, which can play in favor of the breakaway,” said sport director Wilfried Peeters of rival team Quick-Step. “Staying at the front will be important as the roads make it hard to organize a chase. Amstel is one of those races where you have to be ‘awake’ at all the right times and there will be a lot of fighting for position.”
While Quick-Step returns with a deep classics team led by defending champion Philippe Gilbert and Tour of Flanders winner Niki Terpstra, Valverde will see solid support. Mikel Landa, Carlos Betancur, Winner Anacona, Andrey Amador, Imanol Erviti, and JJ Rojas will back Valverde on Sunday.
With many top names coming out of the cobblestone classics, including Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and Terpstra, it will be the only major clash between the cobblestone riders and the Ardennes specialists. Many of the top Flemish classics riders are ending their spring campaign Sunday.
While he might not be the five-star favorite at Amstel, Valverde certainly will be in the Ardennes. He’s won Flèche Wallonne five times, including the past four in a row. And he’s won Liège-Bastogne-Liège four times, just one short of Eddy Merckx’s record.
“I have to adapt every year,” Valverde said, “depending on the race conditions and on what my rivals have been doing. If I am at the front with 200m to 250m to go, I am very hard to beat.”
Valverde clearly loves racing in the Ardennes. He’s started Liège and Flèche some 12 times respectively during his career. He’s only raced the GP Miguel Indurain more with 13 starts there. He won that Spanish race for his second time at the end of March.
The other monument ideally suited for the Valverde — the Giro di Lombardia held in Italy each fall — has also proven hard to knock off. In seven starts, he’s twice been runner-up, in 2013 and 2014.
Valverde is enjoying the best spring of his career despite nearly seeing his career end with a devastating crash in the first day of last year’s Tour de France. With nine wins across 25 days of racing, he’s won stages and the overall in all three stage races he’s started — Valenciana, Abu Dhabi, and Catalunya — and won one of the eight one-day races he’s started.
After racing Dwars door Vlaanderen (11th) and previewing this week the decisive cobblestone sectors that will be featured in stage nine of this year’s Tour de France, Valverde looks primed for the most important week of his spring calendar.
Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race will be Valverde’s biggest challenge as he already knows the winning recipe at Flèche and Liège.