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WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — There’s no stopping Alejandro Valverde.
The Movistar captain parachuted into Dwars door Vlaanderen hot off winning the Volta a Catalunya for a little taste of pavé and quickly lit up the race. Valverde attacked hard when the race was splitting into shards and finished an impressive 11th in the second chase group at 59 seconds behind winner Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step).
“I have to be content with the race,” Valverde said at the line. “It was a hard race, very hard.”
Valverde and Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana raced 180km Dwars as part of their preparation for the 2018 Tour de France. With cobblestones on the menu for stage 9 of the Tour, riders such as Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Mikel Landa (Movistar), who raced E3 Harelbeke, wanted to experience the pavé at race speed. The 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is slated to race Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday.
On a rainy, cold, and windy Wednesday while others were content to push through the day without taking risks — Quintana was 60th and Bardet 73rd in a group at 6:47 back — Valverde just couldn’t help himself. He was knocking elbows with the likes of Quick-Step and BMC Racing when the big moves went down over a string of treacherous bergs that pock the Flanders landscape.
“That’s Alejandro,” said Movistar sport director Chente García Acosta. “It was a hard race, with cold and wind and rain, but he is a real racer. When he lines up to race, he’s going to try to win. That’s no surprise for me.”
Rivals were impressed. More than a few of the cobble-bashers looked around in surprise when they saw the Movistar jersey take a turn.
“Riders like him and [Vincenzo] Nibali are really strong and talented. They can do everything. You really have to watch them because you cannot let them go,” Lampaert said. “We went full gas on the Taaienberg, and he was right there. He’s one of the best riders in the last century. I really look up to him. He’s always on attack mode.”
Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere might not be losing sleep yet over the prospect of facing off against Valverde in the northern classics, but even the cagey old manager was impressed.
“When I saw him attack, I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’” Lefevere said. “He’s a skinny guy, only 61kg, and he comes here and does that. You can only say ‘chapeau’ to that.”
García Acosta said Movistar leaves Harelbeke and Waregem satisfied with its northern classics sortie. No one was injured or fell ill, and their Tour de France GC captains got a taste of what they’ll be facing in July.
“We know these cobbles are nothing like what we’ll see at the Tour, but it’s still important to race here,” he said. “You learn about the position, the approach to the cobbles and how the bikes handle over the pavé at race speed. You cannot duplicate that in training. Today was hard with the weather. Let’s hope it’s not like this in July.”
The big question now is whether or not Valverde will race Flanders on Sunday. García Acosta said the team will decide overnight.
“It’s complicated,” García Acosta said. “If you really want to do Flanders the right way, you need to come with preparation and with a strong team. The big goal is the Ardennes, so maybe it’s too much. But knowing Alejandro, maybe he wants to try it.”
Valverde left the window open for a possible Flanders assault. His major spring target is a return to the Ardennes, where he will race Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. As a four-time winner of Liège, Valverde wants to win a fifth title to equal the mark set by Eddy Merckx.
But the allure of a Flanders debut at 37 just might pull in the ageless Valverde.
“We’ll have to think about it,” Valverde said as the crossed the line soaked to the bone.