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After becoming just the second Spaniard to win Flche Wallonne on Wednesday, Alejandro Valverde went one better when he took the first ever Spanish victory in Lige-Bastogne-Lige on Sunday afternoon. The Caisse d'Epargne team leader was one of a large group of riders who came up to the finish behind T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz, and it was Valverde who opened the sprint out, flying by on the German's right-hand side. Paolo Bettini was right on the Spaniard's wheel, or at least he was until Valverde shifted into top gear and cruised clear, leaving Bettini to just hold off a very impressive Damiano Cunego for third place.
Valverde's win was well constructed. Knowing that their team leader's best chance would be in a sprint up the final hill to the finish, Caisse d'Epargne kept him in contention on the tough run-in.
An early breakaway of 26 riders disintegrated going over the Stavelot and Haute Leve climbs, leaving T-Mobile's Steffen Wesemann as the lone leader. He was reeled in on the Cote de la Vecque with 50km remaining by a bunch containing most of the favourites and being relentlessly driven by CSC's Carlos Sastre and Jens Voigt.
The next climb, La Redoute, the toughest of the race, saw this pack thinned out as a number of riders attacked at the front, the best effort coming from Cunego. But even the little Italian's effort couldn't shake the main contenders.
The next climb, the Cote de Sprimont, saw Caisse d'Epargne's Joaquin Rodriguez jump clear, and the Spaniard was quickly joined by Michael Boogerd, annually a contender in Lige but never a winner. With Boogerd looking the stronger and doing most of the pace-making, the pair opened up a lead of almost 50 seconds, as no one took responsibility for chasing them down.
Eventually, defending champion Alexandre Vinokourov's Liberty Seguros team took up the pursuit, but Boogerd and Rodriguez still had a decent lead going onto the penultimate climb, the Sart Tilman. Heading to the top of this ascent, Bettini made his strongest attack of the race, going clear and immediately trimming the leaders' advantage back to just 25 seconds.
Although the pair weren't caught, it seemed the end was close and that proved to be the case on the final climb, the St Nicolas. Phonak's Miguel Angel Perdiguero was the first rider across to them, but a large gaggle were quick to follow. Valverde was among them and he sent Rodriguez onto the front again to do his best to prevent any attacks before the finish.
Given the work he'd already put in, it was asking a lot of Rodriguez, but he was still in front leading up to the kilometre banner. Just before it, Sinkewitz attacked, and was joined by Basso, and then by the rest. Then Basso's CSC team-mate Frank Schleck went, taking Boogerd and Sinkewitz with him. As they were hauled back, Basso made his final effort, but he too was tracked down.
A sprint was guaranteed, and would answer the question of whether Valverde has the legs to deal with a 260km race like Lige. He answered that with an emphatic yes, his victory also carrying him to the top of the ProTour standings. With a perfect Classics campaign behind him, the Spaniard's attention now turns to the Tour de France, where Spain will be expecting even more from a rider who has shown he seldom fails to deliver.
1 1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears 262km in 6.21.32
2 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step
3 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre
4 Patrik Sinkewitz (Ger) T-Mobile
5 Michael Boogerd (Hol) Rabobank
6 Miguel A. M. Perdiguero (Spa) Phonak
7 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC
8 Chris Horner (USA) Davitamon-Lotto
9 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas
10 Ivan Basso (Ita) CSC
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