A new "Alaf" arises

April 19 th 2018 - 17:30

Defending champion Alejandro Valverde will start the race on Sunday morning with race number 1 pinned to his jersey and the ambition to win his fifth Liège–Bastogne–Liège. However, his nemesis at the Flèche Wallonne, Julian Alaphilippe, claimed his first big victory in a one-day race and, with it, favourite status in the Dean of Classics at the same level as the Spaniard. The young French rider is not the only contender who could benefit from a feverish race, starting with Vincenzo Nibali. A multitude of attackers will fight to wrest control of the race from Quick-Step and Movistar.

Everything changed in just an instant. A hundred metres from the finish of the Flèche Wallonne, a split second was enough to see that Alejandro Valverde, sitting on the saddle with his head bent down, simply did not have it in him to resist Julian Alaphilippe. After five victories in the race, including a streak of four consecutive wins in the previous years, the king had finally been toppled from his hill. However, the stinging defeat on the Chemin des Chapelles failed to dampen the fighting spirit of the 37-year-old Spaniard, who remains determined to "continue [his] career until the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo" and adamant that he is heading into Liège–Bastogne–Liège "in the best shape of [his] entire career". The man from Murcia is still a big favourite to win the Dean of Classics for the fifth time, but the roles have been reversed. The first big win of his career has turned "Alaf" into the man to beat in the closing event of the Ardennes campaign. Although the emotions left him at a loss for words after his victory in Huy, they are highly unlikely to hurt his form. At any rate, the Quick-Step leader allayed such fears by repeating that he was "focused on Liège". It looks like he will not only start the race in extremely good shape, but also with a clear psychological advantage on the rest of the field.

However, the winner of the Flèche Wallonne is not the only rider who made an impression on Wednesday. On the finish line, the man himself was convinced that Vincenzo Nibali's gambit had paid off! The "Shark" is no stranger to surprise attacks, a strategy that failed in Huy but worked like a charm to snatch victory from the sprinters in San Remo a few weeks ago. Even in Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Nibali was close to the mark in 2012, when he finished second behind Maxim Iglinskiy. Having smelt blood, the Italian is unlikely to leave it to the end on Sunday. Romain Bardet, who finished in the top 10 of the Flèche Wallonne for the first time (9th), could also attack from afar. Another lesson from the sunny race that took place last Wednesday was the strength of the Lotto–Soudal squad, which suggests Benoot, Wellens and Vanendert will again go on the offensive before the finish in Ans. The Mur de Huy also positioned Michael Matthews as an outsider for the Dean of Classics, alongside Astana leaders Jakob Fuglsang and Michael Valgren. Finally, although riders such as Dan Martin, Michał Kwiatkowski, Warren Barguil and Dylan Teuns turned in sub-par performances, they remain a force to be reckoned with in the fight for the places of honour or even victory. It is, after all, their last shot at glory before the classics season comes to an end.

25 teams, main contenders

South Africa
Team Dimension Data: Cummings (GBR) and Slagter (NED)
Team Sunweb: Dumoulin (NED) and Matthews (AUS)
Bora-Hansgrohe: Majka (POL) and Konrad (AUT)
Mitchelton–Scott: Kreuziger (CZE) and Albasini (SUI)
Bahrain-Merida: Nibali, Gasparotto, Pozzovivo (ITA) and I. Izagirre (ESP)
Quick-Step Floors: Alaphilippe (FRA), Gilbert (BEL), Jungels (LUX) and Mas (ESP)
Lotto–Soudal: Vanendert, Wellens and Benoot (BEL)
Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise: Van Hecke (BEL)
Wanty-Groupe Gobert: Martin (FRA)
WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic: Jules (FRA) and Warnier (BEL)
Movistar Team: Valverde, Landa, Soler (ESP) and Betancur (COL)
United Arab Emirates
UAE Team Emirates: Martin (IRL) and Costa (POR)
United States
BMC Racing Team: Teuns (BEL) and Gerrans (AUS)
EF Education First Drapac p/b Cannondale: Urán (COL), Rolland (FRA) and Woods (CAN)
Trek–Segafredo: Mollema (NED)
Ag2r–La Mondiale: Bardet and Vuillermoz (FRA)
Groupama-FDJ: Molard (FRA)
Cofidis, Solutions Crédits: Édet (FRA), Navarro and J. Herrada (ESP)
Direct Énergie: Calmejane and Hivert (FRAa)
Fortuneo-Samsic: Barguil and Gesbert (FRA)
United Kingdom
Team Sky: Kwiatkowski (POL), Thomas (GBR), Henao (COL) and Poels (NED)
Aqua Blue Sport: Warbasse (USA)
Astana Pro Team: Fuglsang, Valgren (DEN) and Kangert (EST)
Team LottoNL–Jumbo: Gesink (NED)
Team Katusha: Zakarin (RUS) and Lammertink (NED)

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