HUY, Belgium (VN) — It seemed obvious from the start. The peloton stood relaxed in the warm morning, chatting and laughing. But Alejandro Valverde was down the road, alone, warming up and riding toward the finish.
Four hours and 36 minutes later, Valverde was alone again, this time at the end of the Wall of Huy. His arms were raised this time, a wide smile across his face. He’d won his second La Flèche Wallonne and set a record time up the Mur de Huy, and put his name atop the list of favorites, if it weren’t already there, for Sunday’s monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I was very, very — I wanted to win today. Winning is always very, very important for me. I won this race once. It’s important for me to win another one. I was very very motivated today,” Valverde, 33, said in his victor’s press conference.
His Movistar team, thin at times, did enough to put him in contention and keep the race bridled, with the help of BMC Racing and Katusha.
“I don’t think the team was working badly,” Valverde said. “Every rider worked in his moment, and I think that on Sunday in Liège the team will be strong enough to control.”
While BMC rode brilliantly last weekend at the Amstel Gold Race, delivering Philippe Gilbert to a dazzling win, the team and its star weren’t able to pull off something special today, and the Belgian finished 10th, 15 seconds back of Valverde. Katusha’s Daniel Moreno, last year’s winner, came in 11 seconds down, one place better than Gilbert. Joaquim Rodríguez, who crashed and abandoned in Amstel, finished in 70th place, more than four minutes back of Valverde.
The result sets up a quarrel of Ardennes darlings barreling into Liège. Gilbert has shown he’s on form, and Valverde noted that much, though doesn’t seem at all frightened.
“In Amstel Gold he was very, very strong. And today also. But I was better today. Gilbert wanted to win also, but I had better legs. In Liège, maybe Gilbert will be another strong rider. But there will also be more riders on form. It’s not only [me] the main favorite for the race. There will be me, Gilbert, and others.”
Now, Valverde has won Flèche twice, and he’s looking to make it three Liège wins come Sunday. The long, brutal course suits him well, and he’s shown he’s as explosive this season as he is fit for longer hauls. “I like all the classics here. But Liège-Bastogne-Liège is very special for me. It’s different because the climbs, they are longer than here,” he said.
Asked if a change in training was the reason for his sharp form this year — he’s won Roma Maxima, finished third at Strade Bianche, and won the Vuelta a Andalucía — he said there’s still no secret to going fast.
“It’s always the same. You have to train yourself very hard. You have to be careful. But there’s no mystery about training,” he said.
Perhaps he couldn’t hear them, though, the bit of boos that wafted up the finish line as he won, but they were there as Valverde rode across the line atop the Wall of Huy, arms up.
The cheers were louder, though the low yells certainly served as a tacit reminder of the Spaniard’s past, even in beautiful victory: he was linked to Operación Puerto in a doping scandal that dated back to 2006, and served a two-year ban in 2010, returning to the sport in 2012.