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Alejandro Valverde is the stonehearted King of the Mur, ruling with cool efficiency on the iconic finishing climb at Flèche Wallonne.
The Movistar veteran won his fourth title in a row Wednesday for a record five with such apparent ease that he demoralized his rivals, including runner-up Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), who lamented he’d likely have to wait until Valverde retires before he can win the Belgian classic. Unfortunately for Martin, Valverde has a contract for two more seasons.
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An ecstatic Valverde explained his winning ways at the finish line Wednesday: “Confidence, strength, and a great team behind you.”
Let’s break that down:
Success certainly breeds confidence. Valverde, who turns 37 next Tuesday, is on a Merckxian-like run this spring, winning all three stage races and two of the seven one-day races he’s started this season.
The stats are impressive by any measure. He’s been in the top 20 on every one of his 25 race days this year except for one, when he was 49th in the Trofeo Palma at the Mallorca Challenge in his season debut in late January. He won five individual stages during 18 days of racing en route to GC titles, respectively, at Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya, and Vuelta al País Vasco. With 10 victories — bringing his career haul to 106 wins — he’s won more UCI races than anyone so far in 2017.
Coming into Flèche on Wednesday, Valverde was confident not only that he had the legs to win a record fifth time, but also the team and experience to pull it off. Valverde and his team know exactly what they have to do to keep the race together coming back to Huy, and how to position Valverde up the steep and technical Mur. Positioning is key on the final 1.3-kilometer climb, and Valverde was yet again superb in fighting to stay at the front of the bunch coming into the steep switchback turn, and then turning on the turbos with 100 meters to go to accelerate off the front to win with a clean shot at the line. Timing is everything on the Mur: Go too early and you run out of gas. Leave it to late and the winner’s already gone. After having done it four times before, Valverde knows the Mur better than anyone in the peloton. With the legs, experience, and team backing him up, Valverde had all the confidence in the world he was going to win.
Valverde: “We believed we could win it again, and the whole team worked from the very first kilometer to keep the race together before the finish [up the Mur]. We knew it would be difficult to win, because only won can [win] and many fight for it, but to be honest, this feels like a race made for me.”
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Along with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), who’s dominated the northern classics, Valverde is the strongest rider this spring.
While Flèche Wallonne is his first victory outside the familiar confines of Spain this year, he’s beaten back some top opponents from across the peloton.
At Ruta del Sol, Valverde beat longtime rival Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) by one second, with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Wout Poels (Sky) nipping at his heels. In Catalunya, Valverde once again had Contador’s number in a more comfortable victory of more than 1 minute, where he also beat back top Tour de France riders such as Chris Froome (Sky) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) despite a 1-minute penalty in the TTT. And in the Basque Country, he took down Contador for the third time this season, by 17 seconds, against a top field that also included former teammate Ion Izagirre and Sergio Henao (Sky) in what’s considered the hardest one-week stage race on the international calendar.
The evergreen Valverde has had the strength and speed to win in climbing stages, time trials, and even sprints. Who can beat him Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège?
Valverde: “I have a lot of respect for my rivals, but I also knew that I was in great physical condition, and I wanted to take advantage of that. There’s no secret. You need to be in perfect condition, and have no hesitation when someone jumps in the final meters. No one had four victories before, and now I’ve got five. It seems like it will be a record very hard to beat.”
Movistar is a well-oiled machine, and it was firing its pistons with brutal efficiency Wednesday. From start to finish, Movistar worked perfectly to set up Valverde for the final trampoline shot on the Mur de Huy.
Movistar brought experienced workhorses Rory Sutherland and Imanol Erviti to control the breakaways and keep a short leash on late-race attacks that inevitably would come. Wednesday’s most dangerous sortie came from Bob Jungels (Quick-Step), who bolted clear over the day’s penultimate climb. Movistar, with late-race help from Orica-Scott, assured that the big Luxembourger wouldn’t have more than a 30-second head-start when the peloton hit the decisive third and final charge up the Mur.
Carlos Betancur, who was third in the 2013 Flèche behind current Movistar teammate Dani Moreno, set a blistering pace to finish off Jungels. Then Moreno and JJ Rojas did a great job to keep Valverde at the nose of the peloton and out of traffic as it surged up the Mur. By the time the reduced pack zipped out of the steep switchback, Valverde was in perfect position to counter an early surge by French phenomenon David Gaudu (FDJ) and bolt clear of Martin, who had to fight through traffic to reach the front.
Valverde: “Rojas and Dani Moreno set me up in perfect position before the final kilometer, and I took to the front before the double hairpin halfway through the ascent. I wanted to make sure everything was under control and also go on my own trajectory through the last few corners. I went after Gaudu’s attack, and didn’t hesitate to launch my sprint afterwards. Even though it might seem easier, it was just as difficult as the other four wins I got here.”