Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) stormed to La Fleche Wallonne victory on the Mur de Huy, blasting away from his rivals with an unmatchable acceleration.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) hit the front on the famous climb, with Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) attacking from behind.
But Valverde found the Irishman’s wheel and accelerated beyond him with perfect timing to seal his first win in the race since 2006.
Further confirming his fine start to the season, it marks Valverde as a huge favourite for Liege-Bastogne-Liege in four days’ time as he climbed with almost consummate ease.
The race in detail
The perils of the punchy course were laid bare from the start, with defending champion Dani Moreno (Katusha) among several riders brought down in an early crash.
Arnold Jeanesson (FDJ.fr) was another to take a tumble and though all recovered the impact was telling as the frantic opening to the race was sedated somewhat.
Ramanus Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp) instigated the day’s break, dragging Preben van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthCare) with him.
With no immediate response from the bunch – perhaps wary of the earlier crash – the three escapees quickly consolidated their advantage, reaching a lead of 8’45” as the sedate pace in the peloton continued.
Katusha eventually took up the chase, joined by riders from BMC Racing and Tinkoff-Saxo, but the gap was still significant as van Hecke led the three leaders over the first of the day’s 11 climbs.
They continued to lead, with their advantage tumbling throughout the first circuit – including the first ascent of the Mur de Huy, though Clarke was dropped and returned to the bunch inside the final 50km.
Sky’s struggles continue
At the back, Pete Kennaugh’s struggles continued as the Team Sky man – who abandoned the Tour of the Basque Country – was spat out the back as Katusha put the hurt on.
After a respectable showing at the cobbled Classics, Team Sky’s form at the Ardennes Classics has seen them relegated to also-rans.
Josh Edmondson and Nathan Earle also lost the wheel of the bunch, which Movistar’s Spanish champion Jesus Herrada had taken control of.
More riders were spat out the back, but chief contenders including Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) all remained comfortable.
Katusha lead the way
With several Katusha riders on his wheel, Herrada put in a huge shift at the front when they ascended the Mur de Huy for the second time.
The ease with which the Spaniard ascended the fierce climb saw him briefly gap the peloton, with Cyril Gautier (Team Europcar) also earning an advantage.
At the front, the two remaining escapees’ lead was all but over – both visibly struggling on the climb – while a small group briefly went clear of the bunch behind them.
Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) kept his two team leaders safe, with all three of them at the front with Gautier and Herrada.
Herrada sat up but Gautier pushed on to take the descent alone, before he too returned to the bunch with the pace high.
Nibali and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) both looked comfortable just behind them meanwhile.
Rodriguez dropped to the back as they approached the final circuit however and with the attacks starting up the road it left him out of contention for the closing kilometres.
The attacks begin
Chris Anke Sorensen (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol) were two to attack with the original escapees in sight, causing the bunch to string out behind them.
The catch was made with 12 kilometres to go, and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was among the riders to make an attempt off the front.
Wellens continued to look strong at the front, while Herrada showcased his phenomenal strength by pulling another big shift.
Though much reduced, the leading group was still a big one as the riders entered the final eight kilometres – an intermediate climb allowing FDJ.fr’s Jeremy Roy to earn a gap and launch a long one.
Roy led the way under the five kilometre to go kite, but the pace in the bunch was ferocious as teams took turns at the front.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) was brought to the front by his team-mates, having previously conserved his energy.
Costly crash for Cunego
A crash inside the final three kilometres brought Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) down having been well-placed, with Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) held up.
The disturbance was enough to split the bunch, and it remained strung out as Cameron Meyer and Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) led the way onto the lower ramps of the Mur de Huy for the first time.
Gilbert and Nibali were among the riders to lose the position as a result of the crash, but Kwiatkowski, Valverde and Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) were well set at the front.
Moreno also came to the front, but his grimace confirmed his hopes of defending his title were all-but over.
It allowed the Polish champion to come forward, but Martin found room to come round the outside and catch his wheel.
Valverde attacked from his wheel with perfect timing however, blasting away from his rivals and building a big gap.
Martin looked to respond but the Spaniard was simply too good – a quick look over his shoulder showing he had plenty of room as he crested the climb.
And the Spaniard spread his arms his triumph as he sealed a comprehensive victory.
La Fleche Wallonne 2014: result
1) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar – 4.36.45hrs
2) Dan Martin (IRL) – Garmin-Sharp +3”
3) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +4”
4) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling – ST
5) Tom-Jelte Slagter (NED) – Garmin-Sharp +6”
6) Jelle Vanendert (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol – ST
7) Michael Albasini (SUI) – Orica-GreenEDGE +8”
8) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Tinkoff-Saxo – ST
9) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha +11”
10) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing +15”