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The fourth time was not a charm for Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. His run for a fourth win was derailed by a one-two punch of winter-like weather and a new cobblestone climb late in the spring classics closer.
The new, grueling Cote de la Rue Naniot — just 600m long at 10 percent grades over bumpy pavé with under 2.5 kilometers to go — proved the kingmaker. Four riders pulled clear despite Movistar’s dominance throughout most of the race, and Valverde could only watch as Wout Poels delivered Sky’s first monument victory in franchise history.
“It was disappointing because I thought that the cobblestones wouldn’t be decisive,” Valverde said of the new climb. “Later, it was too late to get back into the winning sprint.”
Just days after winning a record fourth Flèche Wallonne, Valverde lined up as a five-star favorite Sunday. The elements and a course tweak conspired against him.
Individually, the foul weather or the new climb probably would not have made such a big difference. But the combo of rain and cold mixed with snow and sleet on top of the minor, but important change of the Liège course doubled up to spoil Valverde’s hopes of winning a fourth trophy in the Belgian monument.
“It was a really difficult race,” said Valverde, who finished 16th at 12 seconds back. “I ended the race with a strange feeling, mixed with good sensations, because once again I’ve seen that my legs are good going toward the Giro d’Italia.”
Conditions were brutal in the oldest race on the UCI’s World Tour calendar. Riders wore layer after layer of cold-weather clothing, with IAM’s Larry Warbasse saying he even covered his entire body in Vaseline in a vain attempt to stay warm. Despite the frigid conditions, Movistar looked to have things under control, with “los blues” controlling the pace of the race until the closing 20km. Movistar helped to reel in the day’s main breakaway, and then sent the revived Carlos Betancur on late surges to neutralize aggression.
Valverde remained in ideal position right until the pack hit the new Naniot climb up a bumpy, urban-cobbled road. Though not long, the punchy climb proved decisive as Michael Albasini (Orica – GreenEdge), Rui Costa (Lampre – Merida), Poels, and Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing) peeled clear. They opened up a promising, yet decisive gap. Chilled to the bone, Movistar and the other teams simply didn’t have the legs to shut down the attack. Albasini buried himself once the course hit the final 1.5km on the last hump up to Ans to assure the leading quartet would make it to the finishing straight ahead of the chasers.
Valverde remained optimistic despite the rough ride. His recent victories at Vuelta a Castilla y León (two stages and the overall) and Flèche bode well for the upcoming Giro d’Italia, which he will race for the first time of his career.
“I am still in optimum condition for the Giro,” Valverde said. “My confidence in my legs remains, and now we’ll take a few rest days, and then start thinking about the big challenge of the Giro.”
The 99th Giro starts May 6 in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, and concludes May 29 in Torino, Italy.