By Dede Demet Barry, T-Mobile Cycling Team
My T-Mobile teammates traveled home to America 10 days ago after a month of racing in Europe. They passed up on racing Flèche Wallonne in favor of a little rest, relaxation and build-up for the next set of races on the schedule. I was eager to race at Flèche, though I’d be without teammates – I had never competed in this classic race before and knew it would be a course that I would like.
I got the opportunity to race with a mixed team, Basis–T-Mobile, a truly international squad with riders from Canada, the United States, Israel and France. They live in the Aude region of France between races, in a small town called Limoux, just south of Carcassonne. It’s a beautiful region to cycle in. Their team manager owns a hotel and several other properties in the region, and houses the Basis riders and the New Zealand national team. He also runs bike/culinary tours in the summer, which sound idyllic, and coaches many French and Canadian racers.
Flèche Wallonne is the fifth World Cup race on the women’s circuit this season and definitely one of the more challenging courses. The circuit starts and finishes at the top of the Mur de Huy, an epic 1.3km wall with an average gradient of 12.9 percent and a maximum of 20 percent. There are seven categorized hills on the circuit, but really, there is never any flat – it just rolls up and down all day.
Having arrived from Spain the night before the race, I did not get to pre-ride the course, but as we drove to the start the morning of the race, we drove up the Mur de Huy and passed one of the SATS team vehicles, which had overheated trying to make it up the wall. Everyone was piling out of the steaming auto. At the same time, we saw several women warming up on the Mur, laboring to turn the pedals over. All the signs were there for a painful finish, whether in the front or the back of the bunch. Just to make it to the top of a hill like this creates some burning in the legs.
At the start line, I saw the Canadian national team in Europe for the first time this season, along with Genèvieve Jeanson’s Rona team and my father-in-law and a few friends who made the trip across the pond to cheerlead for my husband, Michael, and me. It is rare that Michael and I get the opportunity to do the same races. The last time this happened was at the world championships in Hamilton last October. Having his father there was a big comfort, making us feel a little more at home. He carried a Canadian flag for Michael and swung the maple leaf on the Mur.
Our race flew by as we fled up and down one hill after the next. With the peloton speeding up and down the hills in a long line, I sometimes felt as though I was on a roller coaster. An early breakaway containing Ina Teutenberg (German national team) and Miho Oki (Farm Frites) made a strong charge, but was brought back midway through the race on one of the hills.
It seemed as though the racing really picked up at about the halfway point, as some of the favorites began to make their moves. Fabiana Luperini, Jeanson and Lyne Bessette went away together on one of the hills towards the end. I decided to try to bridge on the next hill, and Sara Carrigan had the same idea, so we went across together. We made it, but the peloton eventually caught us all with about 9km to go.
The next attack ended up being the winning move, as Hanka Kupfernagel and Sonia Huguet went away together. No team committed to take up the chase, as neither of the riders was a threat to the World Cup overall, and they sped away up front. They arrived at the base of the Mur with a 30-second lead, and Huguet pulled away from Kupfernagel on the hill to take the win, which was a big surprise – though she is the French national road champion, she is relatively unknown in the international peloton.
Behind the break, the peloton shattered in the last kilometer and Edita Puckinskaite was next to cross the line. Oenoe Wood picked up some more points and further secured her lead in the World Cup. The next round will come at the end of May in Montreal.
After finishing my race, I got to see the men finish. The final kilometer was exciting. As Vinokourov made a strong attack on the Mur, he seemed to have the legs to win, but he faded; then Di Luca looked to be the winner, until Rebellin came flying past him with an incredible acceleration. Rebellin is a powerful-looking rider, and when he went, he muscled it all the way to the line. It was exciting to be among the Belgian cycling fans watching the final, as they are huge cycling aficionados.
Michael and I enjoyed an evening out with his father and some friends in the nearby village of Visé after the race. He will be staying up north for Liège on Sunday, and I have just arrived at our Spanish casa. It is time now for a short break before the next build-up for Tour de L’Aude, Montreal, Philadelphia and Olympic trials in Redlands, California.