April 22, 2015

HUY, Belgium (AP) Alejandro Valverde of Spain perfectly timed his attack to win the Fleche Wallonne (Walloon Arrow) classic for the third time and the second year in a row on Wednesday.

Valverde, the runner-up at the Amstel Gold Race last week, won a sprint ahead of France's Julian Alaphilippe and Swiss rider Michael Albasini at the top of the Mur de Huy after making his move a few hundred meters before the finish.

Valverde joined the likes of Belgian great Eddy Merckx in a club of five riders to have won the race a record three times.

''There is no secret, you just need to be in great shape and to love these races,'' Valverde said. ''Just a lot of training. To match a rider like Eddy Merckx is great, it gives me a lot of confidence and it shows that I still have the legs to perform well.''

Despite the addition this year of a new climb with an 8.1 percent average gradient- the Cote de Cherave - to the 205.5-kilometer ride through the woods and hills, victory was again decided in the final ascent of the iconic Mur de Huy.

The Mur is one of cycling's most difficult climb, with a 26 percent gradient at its steepest, and Valverde knows it inside out. The Spaniard remained well positioned at the front of the pack from the foot of the climb and had enough power left in his legs when he attacked.

Belgian Tim Wellens almost succeeded with a bold move on the Cote de Cherave but ran out of gas in the Mur as he was caught with less than 500 meters to go by Valverde and a pack of favorites that also included Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski.

The major spring classics end with Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege race and Valverde - who will turn 35 on Saturday - will be among the favorites, having already won it twice. The race is run over similar hilly terrain in southern Belgium.

Former Tour champion Christopher Froome was involved in a crash about 12 kilometers from the finish. With his shorts torn, the British rider got back on his bike and raced.

Froome used the Belgian classic as part of his preparations for the Tour de France, as the Mur de Huy climb will feature in the third stage of this year's Tour.

''Chris... was pretty banged up but showed real courage to finish the race and we'll assess his injuries overnight,'' Team Sky sports director Gabriel Rasch said. ''He hasn't needed to go to hospital and right now as things stand, we're still expecting him to line up at the Tour de Romandie next Tuesday.''

Philippe Gilbert, a former Fleche Wallonne winner, was caught in another crash earlier in the race and was forced to retire.

''It was a very tense race indeed, with crashes already 130 kilometers before the finish, and crashes that occurred in the first 30 positions of the pack,'' Valverde said.

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