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Anyone still mystified as to why so much praise has been thrown from all sides in Alejandro Valverde's direction would do well to watch the closing moments of today's Flche Wallonne, as the Caisse d'Epargne rider became just the second Spaniard to win this Ardennes Classic.
The race ran pretty much true to form, with FDJ's Frdric Finot and Ag2r's Jos Luis Arrieta going clear early on and leading the race over the first two ascents of the Mur de Huy. After this pair were caught, Rabobank's Oscar Freire and Phonak's Alexandre Moos made a move that would have been more threatening if a handful more riders had gone with them.
These two were caught by a large group containing all of the favourites on the penultimate climb, the Cote de Ahin, with just a dozen kilometres remaining. Paolo Bettini, Valverde, Ivan Basso and Danilo Di Luca were just some of the names who were prominent here, with Bettini looking especially frisky.
Just before the final slog up the Mur de Huy, Davitamon-Lotto's Bjorn Leukemans made a bid to provide a home win, but soon sank back deep into the pack when the steepest ramps of the Mur were reached. Spaniards Koldo Gil (Saunier Duval) and Igor Astarloa (Barloworld), the only previous Spanish winner of Flche, each got a gap before slipping back to the chasers, in Astarloa's case only 250 metres from the line.
But those last 250 metres are a long haul on the Mur, and the canniest riders saved something for them. As Astarloa faded, Valverde, Samuel Sanchez and Karsten Kroon drove forwards in a line abreast. Based on his superb form in uphill finishes at the recent Tour of the Basque Country, Sanchez was probably the favourite, but it was Valverde who produced the decisive surge that carried him clear for a win that just might help spark a bit more interest in the Classics back in Spain.
Sanchez edged Kroon out for second place, while Amstel winner Frank Schleck finished fourth. Patrik Sinkewitz was fifth, a place ahead of defending champion Di Luca.
"I was a little bit too far back on the climb, but little by little I managed to get back up to the front, then I got on David Etxebarria's wheel and I was able to sprint," said Valverde, who described his succcess as "a very important victory".
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears 202km in 4.42.45 (42.87kph)
2 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel
3 Karsten Kroon (Hol) CSC
4 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC
5 Patrik Sinkewitz (Ger) T-Mobile 0.03
6 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 0.05
7 David Etxebarria (Spa) Liberty Seguros 0.07
8 Koldo Gil (Spa) Saunier Duval 0.10
9 Sergei Ivanov (Rus) T-Mobile 0.12
10 Matthias Kessler (Ger) T-Mobile 0.14
- Damiano Cunego won today's second stage of the Tour of Trentino, beating former team-mate Gilberto Simoni. The Lampre rider's fourth win of the season also moved him into the overall lead at Luca Mazzanti's expense. Simoni's second place seemed to show he has recovered from his crash on the first stage.
Stage 2, Castello Tesino-Cles
1 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Fondital 174km in 3.28.46
2 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Saunier Duval
3 Andrea Tonti (Ita) Acqua e Sapone
4 Eddy Ratti (Ita) Naturino
5 Luca Mazzanti (Ita) Panaria
6 Thomasz Nose (Slo) Krka
7 Przemyslaw Niemec (Pol) Miche
8 Sylvester Szmyd (Pol) Lampre
9 Emanuele Sella (Ita) Panaria
10 Miguel Mosquera (Spa) Comunitat Valenciana
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