Valverde fights with the best and finishes fourth in his 13th Liege

Valverde finishes fourth and is sad. The words – “we are happy, we have been well … we were in the select group of five … we have to be happy” – contradict the tone, underline his frustration, because up to 75 meters from the end of Liege-Bastoña-Liège, he maintained the illusion to win, or if not to win – “and winning would have been the milk”, accepts the Murcian cyclist, number 41 of the Dean on the day he turned 41 -, yes at least to get on the podium, to appear in the photo honor for the eighth time in 13 participations, the absolute symbol of his exceptional durability, his persistence among the best. “Of course I would have liked to be on the podium,” he admits.

And the photo of the podium would have been taken with some kids, with the Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, who could be his son and already won the Tour a few months ago at 21 years old and at 22 he has won his first monument after a sprint in the Ardennes dock or with the Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, the world champion, the cyclist who most resembles Valverde and whose frustration is even greater, because fate gave him the opportunity to erase in the same place, under the same conditions almost, the two mistakes that cost him victory last October, and although he is not wrong this time, and comes back with strength and speed, he is not the strongest either, and the frustration of his country, which for 41 years has waited for a compatriot who puts his name in the race record below that of Bernard Hinault, who won on April 20, 1980, five days before Valverde was born, under a historic snowfall; or with the French who arrives, David Gaudu, Breton like Hinault and already mature at 24 years old, who finishes third …

As Eusebio Unzue, the director who first took him to the Ardennes, in 2005, and inoculated him with the virus of the classics that best defines his career, says: “And there are 20 seasons fighting with the best, on the front line.” As Unzue, who is still by his side, adds: “If the selection of the best five was made by force, by noses, not by opportunism, and there he was, the victory was a matter of cold blood …”

And like Alaphilippe, Valverde, a poker teacher, a master of cold blood, betrays him in the end, on the windy straights of Liège between the Meuse, sunny on the last Sunday in April, and the Ourthe, perhaps anxiety. By abusing his cold blood, Valverde has perhaps lost more races than he has won, but calm at the key moment, when Canadian Michael Woods, the fifth in contention, breaks the race in the last ascent, that of La Roche aux Faucons, 13 kilometers from the end. Valverde only watches Alaphilippe and his wheel forces the French to close gaps, to accelerate, to spend more. And behind is last year’s winner, the big favorite, Roglic, alone against the wind and lost.

In his four previous victories, the last in 2017, the Liège final was decided on an endless slope in the suburbs of Ans, and on the eve of this edition Valverde accepted that it was a final that suited him better, that he controlled better. In 2019, a year that, under an icy deluge, he retired in the woods, the goal was moved to the center of the city, next to the spectacular train station, a straight 800 meters on a slight slope that, Valverde, like An eager novice, faces first after crossing the last bridge. And first it continues because the others, logically, adjust to their wheel and calculate, think about their movements, measure the distance. Valverde, who thinks that the wind in favor does not disfavor him, has no choice but to start the first one, and he does so seeking to surprise, thus he spends his last bullet, and his start is the signal that others are waiting for. The waiting Alaphilippe, who starts from the fourth position and comes back phenomenally, the wait, more than any, Pogacar, dynamite in the end of very hard stages, as he already demonstrated in the Tour, who starts fifth, from the French wheel and him defeat by half a wheel. And Valverde, who has proven again that the new cannibals are no better than him, the old dean of world cycling, is sad, and accepts with resignation: “They left me all the weight in the sprint and, in the end, fourth… okay, we have to be happy”.

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