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Weighing all of 61kg, Valverde was moving on the inside wheel of the hulking mass of 2015 Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), nearly 40 pounds heavier.
The slender Spaniard wasn’t born to race the bergs of Flanders, but the allure of racing the Ronde in his rainbow jersey season was too much to resist.
And on Sunday, Valverde left Oudenaarde wondering why he waited so long following a superb performance. He sprinted to eighth in the elite chase group.
“I was a lot closer to winning than I expected,” Valverde said. “I am leaving with the sensation of wanting to come back, and to be up in the front with the favorites [Sunday] was a big boost.”
Valverde didn’t know what to expect from the mysteries of the Ronde when he lined up Sunday morning in Antwerp to cheers from the appreciative Flemish fans, which applauded his decision to honor the world champion’s jersey and bring it to unfamiliar and uninviting terrain.
What he lacked in cobblestone experience and physical bulk, Valverde leaned on his teammates and his natural racing instinct to carry the day. And he almost scored a podium finish.
“I’m very satisfied with my race today,” he explained. “It was a very demanding race for the tension, the nerves, and the positioning. Once the selection was made, I had good sensations, and I could climb the ‘walls’ at the front, and I ended the race satisfied.”
There’s never been a Spanish winner at Flanders — Juan Antonio Flecha came close in close in 2008 with third — but Valverde was doing the right things Sunday to put himself in position to win.
Valverde was following the strong wheels and using his racing acumen to stay with the leaders in key moments over the Kapelmuur and later on the final lap.
Movistar rode well to keep Valverde in the mix. It sent Portuguese rider Nelson Oliveira up the road in an early break and had experienced hands like Imanol Erviti and Jurgen Roelandts to guide the rainbow jersey around the pitfalls of Flanders.
“I was in good position throughout the race, and I could follow the moves with confidence,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I missed out that much for a lack of knowledge. I’ve been racing a long time and I’ve raced in all types of classics, not on the cobbles, but in other conditions, so I have this touch.”
In fact, the race wasn’t hard enough for Valverde’s liking. He was well-positioned throughout the twists and turns of the final hour, marking the wheels of favorites like Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team).
Things were looking promising when he latched on to what could have been a race-breaking attack on the final climb up the Paterberg when he joined Van Avermaet, Olivier Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), but the weight of the chase reeled them in.
“There were a lot of fast people in the group, and that didn’t help,” Valverde said. “Four of us got away over the Paterberg, and we tried to work together. Another group came up pretty fast, and it was hard to get things going. I wasn’t going to work more than the others.”
Valverde said he was caught behind a rider who was gapped on the final passage up the Oude Kwaremont, just when Bettiol was launching his winning move.
“When Bettiol jumped, it would have been very hard to catch him,” he said.
Like anyone who races the Ronde, he was moved by the emotional welcome from the fervent Belgian cycling fans. Similar to Spain’s Basque Country or the Giro d’Italia, cycling takes on a magical feel on the narrow farm roads of Flanders.
And at a spritely 38 years of age — 39 on April 25 — Valverde hinted he would be back for another shot. After all, he’s vowed to race through 2020, so he has time.
“I don’t know if I can aspire to win this race in the next few years, because it’s a race that knowledge of the course is key,” he said, “but it went pretty good for me.”
And what about a start at Paris-Roubaix? Don’t count on it. Valverde just laughed and said he would need to add on those 40 pounds that riders like Kristoff carry over the pavé of Roubaix.