For the third time this spring, the Frenchman was locked into a two-way battle with Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) but managed to come around the Dane in the final 120 metres of the steep finishing climb.
Alaphilippe and Fuglsang had gotten to know each other well over the course of their long-range breakaways at Strade Bianche and Sunday's Amstel Gold Race, and they emerged as the clear-cut strongest two on the iconic Mur. Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) claimed the final podium spot, but that was a full six seconds back.
While Michal Kwiatkowski took control on the 1.2km climb, his Sky teammate Wout Poels having set the tempo on the lower slopes, it was Fuglsang who launched his first acceleration through the middle of the famous S-bend, where the gradients reach 20 per cent. He opened a small gap then kicked again, at which point Alaphilippe set off in pursuit.
The Frenchman, springing out of the saddle, comfortably rode away from Kwiatkowski and the rest and made his way up to Fuglsang. He remained behind the Dane until just over 100 metres to go, at which point he hit the front with a powerful acceleration.
While last year, he moved comfortably clear of a fading Valverde, this time he was pushed all the way to the line by Fuglsang, and he needed every last pedal stroke as he won by just a wheel. Another difference to last year was that he knew he was the winner, and he punched the air in delight to finally give himself a proper finish line photo.
"He's a great rider and someone who I respect a lot," Alaphilippe said of Fuglsang. "I think he was as disappointed as me not to win Amstel. We found ourselves together again and today he was really difficult to beat."
While the pair were ambushed at Amstel by Mathieu van der Poel, it was Alaphilippe came out on top at Strade Bianche in early March. After adding Milan-San Remo to his palmares later that month, the 26-year-old now has three major Classics victories to his name this spring, and nine victories in total in 2019.
"This race has been close to my heart for a while now." Alaphilippe added. "I've often finished on the podium, and to win last year was a great satisfaction for me – it was my first big victory. I've won a lot since the start of the season, but it was important for me to be up there today. My team did a great job, I’m very proud of all my teammates – I really have to thank them. The Ardennes Classics are a period I love, and I’m very happy to take this victory."
The 2019 edition confirmed a changing of the guard at La Flèche Wallonne. Prior to his successive victories, Alaphilippe had indeed finished runner-up in his only two other attempts, beaten on both occasions by Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard, a five-time winner, could not even manage the top 10 today. He was well-placed through the S-bend but, as was hinted by his disappointing Amstel performance, he didn't have the legs.
How it unfolded
After 10km of attacks, a five-man breakaway formed, containing Koen Bouwman (Jumbo-Visma) has joined Joseph Rosskopf (CCC Team), Robin Carpenter (Rally UHC Cycling), Kenneth Van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen-Balkoise) and Tom Wirgten (Wallonie Bruxelles). They built a lead of five minutes over the early climbs of the Cote de Tancremont and Cote des Forges, until the peloton – largely marshalled by Alaphilippe’s QuickStep teammates – started to bring the gap down with 100km to go, with the finishing circuit looming.
The following lap saw a flurry of attacks from Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), who succeeded in dragging three riders – Tom-Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data), Tomasz Marczynski (Lotto Soudal) and Michael Gogl (Trek-Segafredo) away on Ereffe. They linked up with the Benedetti group to form a group of seven, catching and passing Van Rooy and Wirgten from the break. They closed in on the three remaining breakaway riders, but never found much ground on the peloton.
Ahead of the second time up the Mur, Benedetti’s seven-man chase group was caught, and the three remaining breakaway men were nearly back as well. Rosskopf crested the Mur in polo position but was soon caught as things kicked off in the reduced peloton. Bjorg Lambrecht (Lotto Soudal) and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) did the forcing as the main bunch split over the top of the climb. On the flat, the group swelled, with a number of strong riders in the front split of 30. Alaphilippe and Valverde were stuck behind and their teams set about chasing it down.
Bora-Hansgrohe took over the pace-making on the approach to the Mur de Huy, with Davide Formolo on the front for Max Schachmann. Wout Poels (Team Sky) then stormed to the front and led the race onto the Mur, Kwiatkowski on the wheel.
The Pole, however, faded as Fuglsang and Alaphilippe rode away to duke out the final metres as we’ve seen them do regularly this Spring. Alaphillippe kicking out in front over the line to take the victory.
We all look forward to Liege-Bastone-Liege this weekend for the final chapter in the Ardennes Classics…
(Credits/Resources: P Fletcher / cyclingnews / Eurosport / Bettini Photo)