Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won a crash-laden La Fleche Wallonne for the second straight year, breaking free from a large, tiring group on the Mur de Huy to claim victory.
Leading the way up the final 500m, Valverde held off a late kick from Julian Alaphillipe (Etixx-QuickStep) to win the race for a third time by several lengths.
Former world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Team Sky’s Chris Froome were among the victims of several crashes which punctuated the race but it was still a big front group which hit the Mur for a third and final time.
However, with Valverde well-positioned, the Spaniard never looked like being beaten as he joined Eddy Merckx on three wins in the second of the Ardennes Classics.
Seven riders had gone clear in the day’s escape group, powered by Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), whose penchant for getting into the break is showing no sign of abating.
But it was back in the bunch where the main action unfolded, with Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Froome involved in the first crash at a pinch-point in the road en-route to the opening climb of the Huy.
Froome bounced straight back but Martin was slower to climb back on and was surrounded by team-mates at the tail end of the peloton for large periods of the race.
Gilbert was the next big-name affected, the Belgian coming off much worse after a collision which also included Bob Jungels and Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing).
Though he remounted, the badly bruised Gilbert accepted he would not be adding to his 2011 success and climbed off shortly afterwards, now facing a race against time to be fit for Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
As the break was cut to size at the front – De Gendt continuing to power it along – the crashes kept on coming in the bunch.
Wout Poels and Lars-Petter Nordhaug (both Team Sky) ended up in ditch, as did Danish champion Michael Valgren (Tinkoff-Saxo) and, the obviously hurt Anthony Roux (FDJ).
Former podium finisher Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal), who also crashed at the Amstel Gold Race, hit the deck just shy of the second climb of the Huy and called time on his race, with Alexey Tsatevich (Katusha) requiring the medical car after crashing badly in the same incident.
Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) attacked over the crest of the climb, with Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) on his wheel, and the two picked off the remanants of the day’s break.
The attacks kept coming but Etixx-QuickStep took over chasing duties to keep proceedings under control while, up the road, Sanchez and Viconti drove the big pace to rid themselves of the earlier escapees and open up a 24-second lead with 15km remaining.
Another crash, on a high-speed corner, took down Froome again, while Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing) and several IAM Cycling riders also went down. This time the prognosis was not so good for Froome, who gingerly got back up but did not look comfortable.
The new ascent of the Cote de Cherave put paid to Sanchez and Visconti’s hopes, and also served as the springboard for more attacks – both Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) putting digs in.
Wellens, racing on his local roads, earned himself a small gap which kept on growing as the race approached the foot of the Huy for the final time.
The lead was 14 seconds as he hit the climb, with Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) chasing hard behind, but his effort fell short and he was eventually caught on the stretch of the climb with his name painted on it.
That still left a large group together to contest the win, but with Valverde on the front with 200m to go the Spaniard claimed victory once again.
La Fleche Wallonne 2015: result
1) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar – 5.08.22hrs
2) Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) – Etixx-QuickStep – ST
3) Michael Albasini (SUI) – Orica-GreenEDGE
4) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha
5) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha
6) Alexis Vuillermoz (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +4”
7) Sergio Henao (COL) – Team Sky – ST
8) Jakob Fuglang (DEN) – Astana
9) Tom-Jelte Slagter (NED) – Cannondale-Garmin
10) Wilco Kelderman (NED) – Team LottoNL-Jumbo