HUY, Belgium (AFP) — Spaniard Alejandro Valverde timed his attack to perfection on the grueling Mur de Huy to win La Flèche Wallonne for the second time on Wednesday.
The 34-year-old Movistar team leader, who also won this race in 2006, passed Ireland’s Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) of Poland in the final 200 meters of the 199.5-kilometer ride to claim his fourth victory in an Ardennes classic.
Martin finished three seconds down, with Kwiatkowski another second back.
“More than revenge I simply wanted to win and I tried to win,” said Valverde. “On Sunday at Amstel I was happy (with fourth) because Gilbert was simply much stronger. But today I had good legs, I went for the win and I got it. I’m delighted for me, for my team, for my teammates, because everyone worked hard together.”
Last year’s winner Daniel Moreno (Katusha) could finish only ninth; Amstel Gold Race winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) was 10th.
Valverde had been pushed off the podium at Sunday’s Amstel race as Belgian Gilbert burst clear to win by five seconds over Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).
But this time, Gilbert failed to get himself into one of the leading positions at the foot of the final climb, the imposing Mur de Huy.
Frenchman Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) attacked at the foot of the climb, which averages almost 10 percent and has a steepest section of 26 percent.
But Bardet could not make it stick and soon a host of other riders had come to the front.
Kwiatkowski seemed to have edged ahead but Martin, last year’s winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, came storming past with a brutal acceleration.
Yet he too slowed down as Valverde, also a two-time winner in Liege, made his move, which proved the winning effort.
“They say you have to learn how to race it, this last climb,” said Martin. “Every year I get a little bit better. … This year it was just flat out the whole way up. Alejandro was the strongest today. With 100 meters to go I definitely thought I had it, but he blew past.”
Kwiatkowski said he was satisfied with a podium in the midweek classic, which he said doesn’t suit him as well as the other two races of Ardennes week.
“I think I little bit surprised myself, you know? Flèche is the race that doesn’t really suit me,” said Kwiatkowski. “I think Amstel and Liège suit me well. I could recover well from Amstel. … I’m really happy with what I did today.”
Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Belkin) earned his best ever finish in a classics race with fourth, and compatriot Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin) was fifth.
Moreno’s Katusha team had looked to be controlling the peloton coming up to the final climb but suffered a crucial blow when 2012 champion Joaquim Rodríguez was brought down 3km from home by a crash involving Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida).
That seemed to affect several riders’ ability to position themselves at the front of the peloton for the crucial final 1.3km up the Mur.
The day had begun with a three-man breakaway involving Australian Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthcare), Belgian Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), and Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin) of Lithuania.
Clarke was dropped around 50km from home and the other two battled on until they were reeled in with just over 10km left, having spent around 170km in the lead.
At that point the racing was furious with BMC, Movistar, and Katusha sharing pace-making duties to ensure their leaders were in pole position once the Mur de Huy came into view.
But Gilbert’s hopes of matching the Ardennes treble he achieved in 2011 went up in smoke as he was caught well back down the field when the climb up the Mur began.