Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck Quick-Step) roared back to winning ways at La Flèche Wallonne after reeling in Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) on the ramped home straight after a scintillating showdown on the Mur de Huy.
Roglic rolled the dice early to open up a large gap coming out of the second hairpin of the deciding climb. But the world champion, 28, showed his class by bridging over and then riding clear after the two went shoulder-to-shoulder in the thrilling finale of the 85th edition of the race.
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It was Alaphilippe’s third victory in La Flèche Wallonne following his back-to-back wins in 2018 and 2019 – and completed an excellent showing for cycling’s world champions after Dutch superstar Anna van der Breggen won the women’s race for the seventh successive time earlier in the day.
Five-time champion Valverde came home six seconds down to complete the podium four days short of his 41st birthday. Canada’s Michael Woods (Israel StartUp Nation) and France’s Warren Barguil (Arkea Samsic) completed the top five ahead of Briton’s Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers).
The in-form Pidcock was one of the pre-race favourites but a crash inside the final 30km did the 21-year-old’s chances no favours as he made his debut in the race off the back of victory in Brabantse Pijl and his photo-finish heartbreak in the Amstel Gold Race.
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Defending champion Marc Hirschi and teammate Tadej Pogacar were controversial non-starters after the entire UAE Team Emirates squad had to pull out following a positive Covid-19 test for Italy’s Diego Ulissi and a staff member on the eve of the race.
The early stages of the 192km slog through the Ardennes was animated by an eight-man move which built up a maximum lead of just over five minutes. The escapees were Alex Howes (EF Education-Nippo), Sylvain Moniquet (Lotto-Soudal), Sander Armée (Team Qhubeka Assos), Maurits Lammertink (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), Julian Mertens (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Diego Rosa (Arkéa-Samsic), Louis Vervaeke (Alpecin-Fenix) and Simone Velasco (Gazprom-Rusvelo).
With the first and third ascents of the double-digit Mur de Huy bookending two laps on a hilly finishing circuit that also included the Côte d’Ereffe and the Côte du Chemin des Gueuses, the eight leaders gradually saw their advantage whittled down over the testing terrain.
Pidcock crashed along with the 2011 winner Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) and a handful of others following a touch of wheels in the peloton with just under 30km remaining. By now, eight had become five after Mertens, Velasco and Rosa were distanced on the second ascent of the Mur.
Gilbert’s marauding teammate Tim Wellens put in an attack with 11km remaining, the Belgian taking with him Spain’s Omar Fraile (Astana Premier-Tech) and compatriot Ilan Van Wilder (Team DSM). But a countermove from Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) snuffed out the threat as lone leader Lammertink emerged as the sole rider out ahead with the last climb looming.
As is so often the case, the race was decided on the final ascent of the 1.3km climb, with its average gradient pushing 10 per cent. Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski marshalled the front of the pack for Ineos as the favourites emerged going onto the first of two hairpin bends.
Roglic, back in Jumbo-Visma’s classics squad after Amstel winner Wout van Aert took a well-earned day off, then lit the torch paper with a stinging attack with 350m remaining of the double-digit ramp. Last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner opened up a commanding gap but the French world champion timed his riposte to perfection.
Darting clear of the former “King of the Mur de Huy” Valverde, Alaphilippe reeled in Roglic with a consolidated out-of-the-saddle surge, drawing level with just 50 metres remaining. The Slovenian looked to enjoy a second wind as the gradient eased off but Alaphilippe made sure of his third win with a clinical surge ahead of the line.
France’s David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Colombia’s Estaban Chaves (Team BikeExchange), Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Germany’s Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) completed the top 10, while there was an impressive 12th place for Britain’s Ben Tulett, the 19-year-old from Alpecin-Fenix and the youngest rider in the race.
But the day belonged to Alaphilippe, who bounced back from a disappointing performance in the Tour of Flanders to secure his second win of the season and his Deceuninck Quick-Step team’s twentieth. Now the focus shifts to the final rendez-vous of the Ardennes calendar, La Doyenne, the third Monument of the season.
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