Julian Alaphilippe surges past Jelle Vanendert with Alejandro Valverde several metres behind, in the picture but for once out of contention. The Flèche has a new winner in Julian Alaphilippe although almost an old hand given he’s been on the podium here twice before. It was a good edition of a race that had become cycling’s equivalent of a repeat edition.
It was a warm day, spring had sprung with the woodland turning green. A group of eight riders went clear with two riders from the World Tour, Anthony Roux (Groupama-FDJ) and Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Hansgrohe) and their higher level would show when several hours later the move was caught by a counter move and only they could latch on.
Approaching the second time up the Mur de Huy several teams were firing riders up the road, presumably in a bid to sap Movistar. It was working and if finally the proverbial elastic snapped it seemed more to fray under the high speed racing rather than decisively break and Vincenzo Nibali, Jack Haig, Tanel Kangert and Max Schachmann got away and caught up with Roux and Benedetti. Nibali was enlivening another race but presumably on duty for the Izagirre brothers and Enrico Gasparotto, a golden lure while Haig looked strong and Kangert and Schachmann could both play the team card: they were policing the move and outsiders.
Some riders not happy with the TV moto being so close to help Movistar chase. Valverde running out of team mates to chase pic.twitter.com/5dGK8GWkk9
— the Inner Ring (@inrng) April 18, 2018
Earlier this week Patrick Lefevere blasted race motorbikes for being too close to the racers and so their slipstreams were interfering with the race. Is he right? Yes it happens too often but let us note his intervention came just after the first time Quick Step hadn’t placed a rider on the podium in a spring classic. A handy diversion tactic? Again he’s right but he’s done this kind of polemic to get people to talk about something else than his team before. The riders were getting visibly angry with the TV moto at one point feeling it was helping the chase: Movistar’s eighth man of the day? Only at this point Movistar needed the help and Valverde had a loyal Mikel Landa working for him, helpful but hardly the tower of power he needed on the front of the bunch and it meant he was without anyone else to drop him into position.
Is the reduction in team sizes doing something to the racing, making it harder to control and the racing more lively? The long answer is that we can’t be sure, we cannot control for it by running two identical races, one with eight rider teams and the other with this year’s maximum of seven and then the same scenario over and over again until we can draw conclusions. The short answer is that just possibly it is.
200km and an uphill sprint. Yes for TV viewers but the peloton is stressed and the crashes kept coming. Lose a few places on a corner, a climb or a descent and it’s hard to move up. Do it several times and you’ve wasted enough energy to mean you arrive at the foot of the Mur de Huy with jelly legs. Tiesj Benoot was leading into the Côte de Cherave which suggested Lotto-Soudal hoped Tim Wellens or Jelle Vanendert could take on Valverde on the final climb, otherwise why else chase? There was a brief flurry of attacks and Alejandro Valverde went in person to close things down. A sign of strength or weakness? With hindsight this was energy he’d rather save.
Ahead the breakaway had fractured and it was down to Haig and Schachmann and the pair sped along the banks of the Meuse towards Huy with 30 seconds. As a rule a breakaway needs at least 45 seconds going into the final ascent of the Mur such is the ability of those in the bunch to surge up. Still Schachmann kept going and if he never had enough at the foot of the climb in Huy to win his presence forced Lotto-Soudal to chase. Jelle Vanendert led the charge up the hill, a mountain stage win in the 2011 Tour de France to his name but ever since he’s a regular in the Ardennes races but rarely beyond, and a support actor rather than the star. This looked like a different way of racing up, normally there’s a waiting game and some marking but this was much more of a straight, hard effort. Quick Step used Bob Jungels and then Philippe Gilbert as lead outs for Julian Alaphilippe, a royal train.
As they rounded the final tight bend Alaphilippe looked back, could he see Alejandro Valverde behind him? Hard to say because the Spaniard was several lengths back and late for his appointment with the finish line. Either way Valverde was out of the picture and Alaphilippe put in his final explosive kick to overhaul Vanendert and take the win.
The best edition of the Flèche for some time because of the fine balance in the finish. No one team had control of the race and the late breakaway with the likes of Nibali, Haig and Schachmann had promise. Movistar ran out of riders leaving Valverde in person to cover the late moves and this might have cost them but for all that Valverde was defeated it was a matter of metres, he was still second and if he’d replayed the finish he might have been closer. In contrast Alaphilippe could sit tight and even better he had a royal leadout into the final climb but he wasn’t sure if he was sprinting for the win, saying it was hard to hear his race radio and he thought Nibali might still be up the road. Tiesj Benoot’s generous efforts late in the race looked to be too kind to Valverde but ensured the break was pulled back. Vanendert surged up the Mur and was only overhauled at the end, perhaps inevitably but a strong result for this curious specialist. It all bodes well for Liège-Bastogne-Liège this Sunday with the burden again on Quick Step and Valverde still very much in contention.