Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez, riding for the Katusha team, won the Fleche Wallonne one-day cycling classic in Hu, Belgium, on Wednesday.
Rodriguez, a noted climber, pulled clear on the grueling final ascent of the 194km race to cross the finish on the Mur de Huy summit ahead of Swiss rival Michael Albasini.
Belgian champion and last year’s winner Philippe Gilbert came third.
For Rodriguez, this was a fitting victory, as he had taken second place in the last two editions of the Ardennes event, which sandwiches last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race and Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic.
The Catalan-born rider claimed his first classic at the age of 32 and he did it with four seconds to spare over Albasini.
“This is my most cherished victory, for me it’s my best day ever,” Rodriguez said. “I am a real fan of the classics. I’ve had so many good finishes, but I was still waiting to win one.”
“Rodriguez is the deserving winner — his team assumed the work,” Gilbert said.
As well as his runner-up spots in the Fleche, Rodriguez has also proved his classic mettle by taking second in last year’s Amstel and second again in the 2009 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Rodriguez is the third Spaniard to win the Fleche after Igor Astarloa in 2003 and Alejandro Valverde three years later.
With intermittent rain making conditions tricky, the race was marked by a long breakaway launched by Belgian Dirk Bellemakers and France’s Anthony Roux one hour into the ride.
The duo had up to 10 seconds of daylight between them and the chasing pack at one point.
With less than 10km to go, it was the turn of Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and Norway’s Lars-Petter Nordhaug to go for broke.
This duo were then swept aside in the chase led by the Lotto and Katusha teams 1km from the finish.
Tour de France champion Andy Schleck was unable to live with the closing pace and came in 81st, almost two and a half minutes adrift.
Meanwhile, Gilbert fancies his chances in Sunday’s Liege race.
“The weather is playing in my favor. I like the cold, I can put up with it better than the Spaniards and Italians, who are used to the heat,” he said. “Bad weather can be my ally.”