Every time Alejandro Valverde wins a race, I think about how Velonews‘ spring preview last year complained that he’d never won a race outside of Spain. Never mind that he’d been 3rd in the ’03 Vuelta, while winning the combine classification, along with two stages, and then finished second (to his teammate) at that year’s World Championships (held in Canada, by the way), or that the next year he won three week-long stage races, before finishing in the Top 10 at worlds (again, assisting a teammate who won). “Never won a race outside of Spain” – the Journal of Competitive Cycling, folks; get your subscription today. I wonder if Valverde sent them a postcard from Courchevel last July…
Anyway for those of you who missed it, Valverde (Caisse-d’Epargne) took one of the more effortless Fleche-Wallonne wins I’ve ever seen today. Things were pretty active at my least-favorite (not that I don’t like it) of the April classics this time around, with Oscar Freire and Alexandre Moos making the first race-threatening attack with 60k+ to go. Quick-Step and Liquigas put the chase on, working for Bettini and DiLuca, respectively, but their captains let them down a bit: Bettini by nearly becoming a gold-pated hood ornament on some spectator’s minivan, gesticulating wildly at race motos, and generally not focusing on the race, and DiLuca by just kinda hanging around in the front group, instead of driving it. Not such a big deal for The Killer, as he’s keying up for the Giro, but Bettini was apparently full-on for this one.
Some interesting faces showed up toward the end of the race, including T-Mobile’s Mattias Kessler, who tore the group apart over the penultimate climb, and Ivan Basso, who rode hard to bring it back together on the descent. Valverde kept hitting it on the front between the last two climbs, but the chasers were too many, and things were together, more or less, until 2k to go. Then Bjorn Leukemans figured he’d better let people have a look at the Davitamon kit soon, because they sure weren’t gonna see it at the finish line. His flyer made it a fair distance up the Mur, before Koldo Gil of Saunier Duval attacked from the Red Kite.
It was the last Fleche winner not to have also won Amstel, Igor Astarloa, who set off the final sprint with a big move at 700m to go, and if you’d never seen this race finish before, you might have thought it a winner. But lactic acid is an impatient creditor and called in the debt on the Barloworld rider on the final steep pitch. Right as the hill eased up with 100m to go, David Etxebarria (Liberty Seguros), Valverde, Karsten Kroon (CSC), and Sammy Sanchez (Euskatel) were shoulder to shoulder, but the non-Basque Spaniard put on a 4-5 pedalstroke burst to make you wonder what was wrong with the other three. After a quick glance behind, he put up a decidedly relaxed arms-to-the-sides salute as Sanchez out-gritted Kroon to sort out the podium.
It kinda surprised me to see Valverde win so easily, especially after his surprising absence from the tougher stage finishes at Pais Vasco (which Sanchez performed well on) and his suffering at Amstel earlier in the week. Perhaps the distance still hurts the young Spaniard, as his Tour win came after “just” 180k, and today’s victory after “only” 200. Though I’d never count Valverde out of any race (at least any race that doesn’t end in “Roubaix”), I’m still hesitant to list him among the favorites at this Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege.