Blazin' Saddles: Valverde's rivals need a Flèche of inspiration
Without his rivals applying a thorn to his Flèche, Alejandro Valverde will climb to an historic sixth Wallonne victory on the Mur de Huy on Wednesday. The Spanish veteran once again starts the first of the two Belgian Ardennes classics as favourite ahead of the fourth Monument of the season on Sunday, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Madness, they say, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That would make Alejandro Valverde the sanest man in the saddle – and his rivals for 'The Walloon Arrow' a bunch of certifiable pretenders perpetually drinking at the last chance saloon.
On Wednesday, Valverde will roll out of Charleroi as the bookmakers' (and any sane person's) favourite to add to his already historic haul of victories in La Flèche Wallonne.
For the past four years, Valverde has triumphed atop the infamous Mur de Huy at the conclusion of lumpy puncheurs' classic. Add his victory in 2006 and the Spanish veteran – already the most feted Walloon winner of all time – could rewrite the record books once again on Wednesday.
A sixth Flèche win will make Valverde the first rider to win a top one-day classic five times on the bounce – eclipsing Fausto Coppi's four wins in the Giro di Lombardia (1946-49), Jan Raas's Amstel Gold Race quadruple (1977-80) and Tom Boonen's four E3 Harelbeke scalps (2004-07).
Germany's Marcel Kittel has won Scheldeprijs on five occasions between 2012 and 2017 but failed to do so in 2015 and – let's be honest – the two Belgian races are apples and oranges when it comes to winning them.
That Valverde's uphill surges on the Mur de Huy seemingly mirror the bunch sprint finesse of Kittel merely goes to underline the Movistar rider's complete and utter domination of the Flèche and its now formulaic yet strangely compelling finale.
The truth of the matter is quite simple: no-one sprints faster uphill on the 22 per cent gradient of the Mur de Huy in the same vein as Valverde. Sure, his detractors will point to his retrospective ban for his involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping case – and yet that run of four wins started two years after the Spaniard completed his punishment.
Valverde mastering the Mur is like death and taxes: inevitable. Even the man himself admitted last year that, provided he is in the right position with 200 metres to go, "it is very difficult to beat me".
" I try to make sure nobody attacks. I calculate my distance and then I accelerate. It's a distance I control very well and that's my advantage."
In the past four years, Valverde has beaten a similar group-set of riders to top the Flèche podium: Dan Martin and Michal Kwiatkowski (2014), Julian Alaphilippe and Michael Albasini (2015), Alaphilippe and Martin (2016), Martin and Dylan Teuns (2017).
They are all riders who pretty much do as Valverde does – just not as well. It's worth adding that Valverde has got the better of Martin (2017) and Alaphilippe (2015) on the uphill finish in Ans of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, too, although Martin did relegate Valverde to fourth behind Joaquim Rodriguez in 2013.
So, it's not as if he can't be beaten. It's just that – on the Mur, at least – Valverde holds all the aces. Or, as Martin – himself struggling for form since joining UAE-Team Emirates in the winter – said this week: "We've just got to hope he's getting slow."
But looking at his results this season, it's scary just how, well, un-slow, Valverde is riding: having fought back from a nasty knee injury suffered in last year's Tour de France, the 37-year-old has nine wins so far. In fact, in 26 race days Valverde has finished outside the top 12 on only six occasions.
On Sunday, Valverde picked up a career sixth top-five in Amstel Gold – the only of the 'Ardennes Classics' he has yet to win.
But his fifth place came after the Spaniard chose to keep on the wheel of favourite Peter Sagan rather than chase down Michael Valgren's winning move.
Besides, for Valverde, the Amstel Gold Race has always been an aperitif – a mere sip of beer ahead of Wednesday's plate of coarse Ardennes pate and then, this Sunday, some sweet, fruit-topped Liège waffles. (This year, all this comes three days before he raises a glass for his 38th birthday next Wednesday.)
On current form and past history, then, you'd expect Valverde not only to win Wallonne on Wednesday but to rewrite yet more records by drawing level with Eddy Merckx's five Liège-Bastogne-Liège wins on Sunday. Do so, and Valverde would become an 'Ardennes double' winner for a record fourth time after his previous hauls in 2006, 2015 and 2017.
First things first, Valverde must focus on being the 'King of the Mur' once again. Unless his rivals can exact their pound of, ahem, Flèche and drop him before the final ramp, it's hard seeing any other outcome.
But such is the nature of a race that has been criticised in recent years for being an attritional snooze-fest ahead of the predictable power-to-weight showdown on the Mur, it looks likely that his rivals will have to beat Valverde at his own game if they want to end his victorious run ballooning even further. And that, we know, is sheer madness.
Largely unchanged from last year's race, the 2018 edition sees the number of climbs rise back from nine to 11 during the 198.5km race. The Cote de la Redoute (of Liège Bastogne-Liège fame) is one of four classified climbs ahead of the three laps of the tough closing circuit – which includes three ascents of the Mur de Huy.
Ahead of the second and third ascents of the mythical climb, the riders will tackle the Cote d’Ereffe and the Cote de Cherave. Temperatures are set to soar to the mid-20s on Wednesday with not a cloud in the sky above Belgium.
Rider star ratings
Dan Martin, Michael Albasini, Roman Bardet
La Flèche Wallonne Femmes
For Alejandro Valverde read Anna van der Breggen when it comes to the women's Flèche title. The Dutchwomen already became the first rider to win three consecutive editions last year – and a fourth win on Sunday will see her draw level with Marianne Vos' current record of four victories.
At 118.5km, the women's race takes in seven climbs including the decisive paired ascent of the Cote de Cherave and the Mur de Huy in the final.
Van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) will face opposition from the likes of Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon SRAM), Ashleigh Moolman (Cervelo-Bigla), Janneke Ensing (Ale Cipollini) and Flavia Oliveira (Health Mate-Cyclelive) as well as the quadruple champion Vos (WaowDeals Pro Cycling).