April 20, 2016

HUY, Belgium (AP) Alejandro Valverde of Spain became the first rider to win the Fleche Wallonne four times after racing to a third straight title Wednesday.

Spanish rider Joaquin Rodriguez was the first to attack during the brutal Mur de Huy climb, but Valverde countered the move and won the sprint ahead of Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe - who finished runner-up for a second consecutive year.

Valverde, who will turn 36 next week, also won the race in 2006, 2014 and 2015.

''It's incredible to win for a fourth time. It's historic, for myself and for the team. I knew that I was in great shape so I made the best of it,'' Valverde said.

The Mur de Huy is one of cycling's most difficult climbs, with a 26 percent gradient at its steepest, and Valverde knows it perfectly. Right from the start of the climb, he remained well-placed at the front and waited for the right time to surge ahead with a few hundred meters left.

''I decided to focus on my own course up the Mur, my own path,'' Valverde said. ''I knew I had to hang on until a certain distance, stay well-positioned and give everything with 100 meters to go. Of course, it's important to make history. It isn't just a game or an extra line on my record. The Fleche is a major race in the cycling calendar.''

Irish rider Dan Martin completed the podium of the 80th edition of the Ardennes classic, ahead of Wout Poels and Amstel Gold Race champion Enrico Gasparotto.

In perfect weather conditions, three riders - Bob Jungels, Georg Preidler and Ion Izaguirre - tried to launch a breakaway about 12 kilometers before the finish. After Preidler was dropped, they were joined at the front by Tim Wellens, who repeated his move of the previous year when he accelerated in the Cote de Cherave. The trio was finally reeled in before the final climb of the Mur de Huy.

The race was marred by a crash involving Frank Schleck with about 44 kilometers to go. The Luxembourg rider was forced to abandon with a suspected collarbone fracture.

The major spring classics end with Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege race, and Valverde will be among the favorites, having already won it three times. The race is run over similarly hilly terrain in southern Belgium.

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