By Andrew Hood
It was a mur too far for Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) as Kim Kirchen (High Road) sprang past the attacking Australian on the final ramps of the knee-busting steeps up the Mur de Huy on Wednesday to win a wet and wild Flèche Wallonne.
Evans looked unbeatable when he surged away on the steepest part of the Mur with about 400 meters left to race, but a tenacious Kirchen came off the fifth wheel with about 175 meters to go to relegate Evans to second. Damiano Cunego (Lampre), winner of Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, rounded out the podium with third as rain and cold soured the second half of the 199.5km race.
“I had good legs on the Mur and rode the wheel of (Davide) Rebellin up the climb,” said Kirchen, who became the first Luxembourg rider to win Flèche. “I used a 53×21, maybe it was a little too big, but when you have Cunego behind for a possible sprint, you need it.”
Kirchen was among a lead group of favorites to hit the base of the 1.3km Mur de Huy to battle for the spoils in an exciting, attack-laden 74th edition of Flèche Wallonne, which saw a 20-man breakaway enliven the middle part of the race.
Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), who attacked over the day’s penultimate climb at the Col de Ahin, was swept up with less than 500 meters to go as the favorites pitched and heaved their way up the steepest part of the Mur with ramps up to 20 percent.
An on-form Evans, winner of four races already this spring, took the initiative with a long attack that drew out Rebellin, Cunego, Spanish champion Joaquim Rodríguez (Caisse d’Epargne) and Kirchen.
Rodríguez and Rebellin faded, with the defending champ taking sixth after being passed late by the Dutch pair of Thomas Dekker and Robert Gesink (both Rabobank). Evans didn’t wilt under the pressure; it’s just that Kirchen had enough in the tank to come around him.
“I didn’t want to make the mistake of waiting too long and I attacked because I wanted to make it long,” said Evans, who improved on his career-best of ninth in 2005. “Kirchen was strong and he showed it because he was able to come around from behind. It was a perfect race by the team and they did a great job of protecting me and putting me where I needed to be. It’s only too bad I couldn’t finish off the job.”
Cunego admitted the punchier, shorter Flèche course wasn’t to his liking. While his third-place podium ends his chance at the Ardennes sweep, he’s optimistic ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.
“I have to be satisfied with this race because I was in position to win. Kirchen was just phenomenal on the final climb,” said Cunego, who now takes aim for Liège. “It was really awful out there today with the cold and wind. It was very dangerous and the team did nice work to protect my position.”
Rain and cold turned the second half into a crash-derby. The always-reliable Team CSC saw four riders hit the deck, including pre-race favorite Karsten Kroon and Tour de France candidate Carlos Sastre. Frank Schleck, second at Amstel, later succumbed to the frigid temperatures and didn’t figure among the final charge up the Mur.
Slipstream-Chipotle’s Ryder Hesjedal suffered some bad luck when he punctured with just 3km to go. Teammate David Millar surrendered his wheel allowing Hesjedal to climb to a solid 39th at 1:34 back.
Kirchen’s win confirms his status as one of cycling’s rising stars and gives High Road its biggest victory of its already-successful 2008 season.
Seventh in the Tour and second in the Tour de Suisse last year, Kirchen is confident as he approaches Liège on Sunday.
“Every year I’ve been able to become stronger. I had good sensations this spring, taking wins at País Vasco before coming here,” Kirchen said. “We’ll see how I can do in the Tour this year. People will be watching me more. My strength is my consistency. First, let’s see what happens Sunday.”
High Road’s Michael Barry was optimistic before the start of the stage.
“Our man today is Kim. We’ll be working to protect him and keep him out of the wind. I had strep throat before Amstel, so I had a few days on antibiotics,” Barry said. “He’s a great guy to ride for. He has no attitude and always thanks everyone on the team. He was strong at Amstel, but just had some bad luck.”
At 199.5km (compared to Amstel’s 257.4km and 261km at Liège), Flèche’s shorter, faster course makes for a more dynamic day of racing. Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Télécom), who crashed in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, was the day’s lone non-starter.
Mild temperatures in the upper 60s with almost no wind masked what was awaiting the peloton.
Riders were eager to get into a breakaway in the rolling terrain between Charleroi and the first charge up the Mur at 65km. The nerves triggered some crashes, causing some early withdrawals from Christophe Laurent (Slipstream-Chipotle).
An early move by Marco Pinotti (High Road) didn’t work as the first hour covered a brisk 47.7kph, a blistering speed that swept up other early attempts.
The first of three passages up the Mur saw some familiar faces leading the way, with Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank) leading the way with Cunego tucked in nicely at the front.
Spanish veteran José Luís Arrieta (Ag2r-La Mondiale) tried to slip away on a fast descent at 78km, marked by Hubert Schwab (Quick Step) and Yoann Le Boulanger (FDJeux).
CSC covered the move until Andy Schleck surged forward on the Cote d’Ereffe at 84km. Riders flayed themselves to bridge out, including Jason Donald (Slipstream-Chipotle). About 20 riders latched on to form the day’s first breakaway, but Donald struggled to keep the pace.
“The legs felt really good today. We wanted to get at least one person into a breakaway to take the pressure off our captains,” said Schleck. “The pace was strong and then we heard they were chasing in the back. That’s normal, but our team didn’t have to work.”
The lead group hit the second passage up the Mur at 95km nursing about a two-minute lead. In the group were: Markus Fothen and Andrea Moletta (Gerolsteiner); Vicente García Acosta (Caisse d’Epargne); Jesús Fernández (Saunier Duval-Prodir); Vladimir Efimkin (Ag2r-La Mondiale); Schleck; Nicki Sorensen and Alexandr Kolobnev (CSC); Paul Maartens (Rabobank); Johan Tschoop (Bouygues Telecom); Francis Mourey and Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux); Remi Pauriol (Credit Agricole); Addy Engels (Quick Step); Volodymyr Bileka and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence-Lotto); Pinotti; Huub Duyn (Slipstream-Chipotle); and David Kopp and Marco Marcato (Collstrop).
With 85km to go, the gap grew to nearly three minutes, prompting Cofidis and Caisse d’Epargne to open the chase up and over a series of hills, dips and curves in the hills above Huy.
Light rain began to fall as the leaders carried a two-minute lead into the final 70km. David López (Caisse d’Epargne), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) all went down on wet roads with about 65km to go.
Rain worsened as the leaders started to counter-attack each other on the Cote de Thon, shedding such riders as Gilbert and Acosta. Schleck and Sorensen chugged away with Van den Broeck in tow while the peloton was within one minute as the group skimmed along with 45km to go.
The peloton was closing in on the break, but couldn’t finish off the job. Sorensen, Van den Brouck, Efimkin and Engels were the last men standing out of the day’s main breakaway and riders started flailing all over the place over the last two climbs before the final passage up the feared Mur.
Disaster struck for CSC when Kroon crashed and abandoned coming off the Col de Bonneville with 40km to go. Co-leader Schleck later bonked in the cold and rain to leave the usually reliable Team CSC without anyone in the top 30.
Maxime Monfort (Cofidis) tore out of the pack on the Cote de Bohissau with about 30km to bridge out to the four leaders. The main pack fractured on the 3.4km climb as Daniele Righi (Lampre), Matt Lloyd (Silence-Lotto) and Andriy Grivko (Milram) also chased out of the pack to latch onto the breakaway.
Grivko countered to open up a 15-second gap on the break with the peloton poised at a further 30 seconds behind with 20km to go.
The main pack swept up the remnants at the base of the penultimate climb at the Cote de Ahin and Grivko’s fate was sealed as well.
Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) then surged away with Efimkin and Gustav Larsson (CSC) latching onto the wheel to hold a promising 30-second lead coming off the Ahin. But Larsson’s front wheel slipped on the descent and he became the fourth CSC rider to crash on the day.
Wegmann hit the base of the climb with a slender, 15-second lead, but he was swept up midway on the Mur.
From there, it was the Evans and Kirchen show, in front of a wet but delirious audience.
1. Kim Kirchen (High Road), 199.5km in 4:35:29
2. Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), at 0:01
3. Damiano Cunego (Lampre), at 0:02
4. Robert Gesink (Rabobank), at 0:02
5. Thomas Dekker (Rabobank), at 0:02
6. Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), at 0:02
7. Michael Albasini (Liquigas), at 0:08
8. Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne), at 0:10
9. Christian Pfannberger (Barloworld), at 0:15
10. John Gadret (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 0:20
11. Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom), at 0:20
12. Bert De Waele (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner), at 0:20
13. Aitor Galdos Alonso (Euskaltel-Euskadi), at 0:20
14. Yury Trofimov (Bouygues Telecom), at 0:24
15. Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi), at 0:24
16. Alexander Efimkin (Quick Step), at 0:26
17. Luca Mazzanti (Tinkoff Credit Systems), at 0:26
18. Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier Duval-Scott), at 0:29
19. Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), at 0:32
20. Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux), at 0:32
21. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), at 0:32
22. Moises Duenas Nevado (Barloworld), at 0:37
23. Nico Sijmens (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner), at 0:40
24. Christian Knees (Team Milram), at 0:40
25. Matthew Lloyd (Silence-Lotto), at 0:40
26. Matej Mugerli (Liquigas), at 0:42
27. Kevin Ista (Agritubel), at 0:45
28. Vladimir Efimkin (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 0:46
29. Josep Jufre Pou (Saunier Duval-Scott), at 0:49
30. Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), at 0:53
31. Nicki Sorensen (Team CSC), at 0:54
32. Igor Astarloa (Team Milram), at 0:54
33. Oscar Freire (Rabobank), at 0:56
34. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), at 1:02
35. Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas), at 1:09
36. Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), at 1:12
37. Pierre Rolland (Crédit Agricole), at 1:17
38. Andriy Grivko (Team Milram), at 1:25
39. Ryder Hesjedal (Slipstream-Chipotle), at 1:34
40. Christophe Rinero (Agritubel), at 1:34
41. Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre), at 1:40
42. Simon Spilak (Lampre), at 1:42
43. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), at 1:50
44. Sergey Lagutin (Cycle Collstrop), at 1:51
45. Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step), at 1:51
46. Christophe Brandt (Silence-Lotto), at 2:33
47. Bram Tankink (Rabobank), at 2:38
48. Floris Goesinnen (Skil-Shimano), at 2:38
49. Mario Aerts (Silence-Lotto), at 2:47
50. David Millar (Slipstream-Chipotle), at 2:49
51. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), at 2:49
52. Jelle Vanendert (Française des Jeux), at 2:56
53. David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott), at 3:02
54. Hugo Sabido (Barloworld), at 3:02
55. Sven Renders (Topsport Vlaanderen), at 3:05
56. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 3:05
57. Guillaume Levarlet (Française des Jeux), at 3:08
58. Maxime Monfort (Cofidis Credit Par Telephone), at 3:08
59. Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen), at 3:08
60. Nicholas Roche (Crédit Agricole), at 3:10
61. Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom), at 3:18
62. Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom), at 3:24
63. Frederik Veuchelen (Topsport Vlaanderen), at 3:24
64. Mirko Selvaggi (Cycle Collstrop), at 3:28
65. Volodymyr Bileka (Silence-Lotto), at 3:35
66. Addy Engels (Quick Step), at 3:41
67. Mauro Santambrogio (Lampre), at 3:41
68. René Mandri (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 3:58
69. Luis-Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne), at 4:01
70. Bert Scheirlinckx (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner), at 4:31
71. Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems), at 4:45
72. Ruben Lobato Elvira (Saunier Duval-Scott), at 4:51
73. Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), at 4:56
74. Kenny Van Der Schueren (Cycle Collstrop), at 5:09
75. Luis Arrieta Jose (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 5:13
76. Andy Schleck (Team CSC), at 5:13
77. Maarten Den Bakker (Skil-Shimano), at 5:13
78. Frank Schleck (Team CSC), at 5:13
79. Carlos Sastre (Team CSC), at 5:13
80. Amaël Moinard (Cofidis Credit Par Telephone), at 5:16
81. Yoann Le Boulanger (Française des Jeux), at 5:19
82. Chris Sorensen (Team CSC), at 5:22
83. Tadej Valjavec (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 5:22
84. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence-Lotto), at 5:24
85. Angel Gomez Marchante Jose (Saunier Duval-Scott), at 5:37
86. Alberto Fernandez De La Puebla Ramos (Saunier Duval-Scott), at 6:03
87. Dario Cataldo (Liquigas), at 6:03
88. Paul Martens (Rabobank), at 6:15
89. Serge Pauwels (Topsport Vlaanderen), at 6:19
90. Vincent Jerome (Bouygues Telecom), at 6:26
91. Vicente Reynes (High Road), at 6:35
92. Michal Golas (Cycle Collstrop), at 6:35
93. Jorge Azanza (Euskaltel-Euskadi), at 6:35
94. Peter Wrolich (Gerolsteiner), at 6:43
95. Francis Mourey (Française des Jeux), at 6:43
96. Sergei Klimov (Tinkoff Credit Systems), at 6:48
97. Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff Credit Systems), at 6:48
98. Hubert Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 6:50
99. Andy Cappelle (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner), at 6:55