By Neal Rogers
Long after this spring classics season passes into history, the spate of races that stretch from the baking Tour of Flanders of several weeks ago through this Sunday’s expected 80-degree Liége-Bastogne-Liége might be most remembered for their balmy, unseasonable weather. And when the day comes that the 2007 spring classics results are but answers to a trivia question, Gerolsteiner veteran Davide Rebellin might still be winning races.
Now in his 16th professional season, the 35-year-old from Verona prefers competing in the 80-degree temperatures found at this year’s Fléche Wallonne. His comfort showed, as Rebellin raced with the calm and cool of a veteran on his way to a second victory atop the Fléche’s signature climb, the Mur de Huy. Defending champion Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) was second, and 2005 winner Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) took third. The victory added to his Fléche win from 2004 when he pulled off the Ardennes Classics hat trick, winning Amstel Gold, Fléche Wallone and Liége-Bastogne-Liége.
Rebellin’s most recent victory also gave Gerolsteiner its second win in this year’s Ardennes Classics, adding to Stefan Schumacher’s win in Valkenberg on Sunday. Rebellin took second behind Schumacher at Amstel, taking over the ProTour lead, an advantage he boosted Wednesday. Rebellin now leads the ProTour standings with 132 points, 50 points ahead of second-placed Oscar Freire (Rabobank).
Held concurrently with the men’s ProTour race was the Fléche Wallonne Femmes, round 4 of the women’s World Cup. With just one trip up the Mur de Huy for the women, the best riders in the world stuck close to each other in the peloton, waiting to strike. Three-time Fléche winner and reigning British national champion Nicole Cooke (Raleigh Lifeforce Creation) attacked first, opening a slight gap over the field, but 19-year-old world champion Marianne Vos (Team DSB Bank) passed her with 150 meters to go to take the win. Cooke finished second, with German Judith Arndt (T-Mobile) third. Americans Amber Neben (Flexpoint) and Kristin Armstrong (U.S. national team) rounded out the top 5. Cooke leads the series, 221 point to Vos’s 145.
Hot and fast
Temperatures were approaching 80 degrees at the start of the men’s race in Charleroi, and well over that when the women rolled out of Huy. After a 65km rolling route from Charleroi to Huy, the men’s race crossed the Mur de Huy and began two rolling circuits that featured four new climbs before tackling the usual trio of climbs that culminate in the Mur de Huy. (The women rode just the men’s major circuit of 104km, starting and finishing at the top of the Mur de Huy.)
The day’s first real breakaway slipped away at 40km, and when the peloton pulled over for a nature break, four riders — Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Freddy Bichot (Agritubel), David Loosli (Lampre-Fondital) and Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole) — quickly opened a gap of five minutes within 10km. As the leaders reached the top of the Mur de Huy, the gap had ballooned to 6:50, but by the time the field passed over the steep climb, it had come down to 5:50.
With Valverde’s Caisse d’Epargne teammates driving the chase, the gap had dropped to 5:40 by 80 kilometers in. Coming over the Huy a second time, the gap from the leaders to the field was 4:30. World champion Paolo Bettini was seen at the back of the pack and spending time talking to his Quick Step-Innergetic team car. Reports came in that Bettini was seen vomiting during the race, and he eventually abandoned before the final ascent of the Mur de Huy.
With 92km remaining, 19-year-old Tinkoff rider Ivan Rovny attacked solo out of the peloton at 110km and charged out into no-man’s land, hoping to bridge. Though he gained some ground, he was brought back into the fold 16km later. With Caisse d’Epargne, Liquigas, Gerolsteiner and Astana chasing, the gap to the four leaders had come down to 2:50 with 76km remaining, and 1:25 at 70km remaining.
The race began to heat up in the final hour. Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) attacked, looking to bridge across, and behind the pace picked up, stringing out the peloton. Rabobank’s Oscar Freire was tangled up in a crash with Geroslteiner’s Tim Klinger and later on T-Mobile’s Michael Barry hit the deck, though no rider was seriously injured.
As the peloton came closer to reeling in the breakaway, Le Mevel failed to keep up the pace, while Loosli decided to sit up. Atop the Côte de Peu d’Eau, with 65km remaining, only Bichot and Verdugo remained at the front of the race, and with Bichot struggling, Verdugo decided to go it alone with 58km remaining.
With Caisse d’Epargne setting tempo, Belgian Benny De Schrooder (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport) attacked alone and went out in search of Verdugo, whose gap had grown to one minute. De Schrooder picked up Bichot on the road, and the pair worked together to reach the Spanish rider.
Next to bridge across to the two chasers were Iker Camano (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Pieter Mertens (Predictor-Lotto). Four hills remained: the Côte de Bonneville at 160.km; the Côte de Bohisseau at 172.km; the Côte de Ahin at 188km; and the Mur de Huy at 202km
The final round
After a large group reeled in the leaders with 40km remaining, the peloton came back together until Frenchman Phillipe Gilbert went clear, gaining 30 seconds. Three riders gave chase — Alexander Efimkin (Barloworld), Joaquim Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne) and Matthias Kessler (Astana). But sensing the move might set up Valverde, Di Luca’s Liquigas team chased it down.
Caisse d’Epargne was next to take up the chase when Astana’s Serguei Ivanov bolted off the front with less than 25km to go and quickly opened a 30-second advantage. As the gap came down over the penultimate Côte de Ahin, Saunier Duval’s Basque Country winner Juan José Cobo counterattacked and bridged across to Ivanov. Liquigas again drove the chase as the front of the race began to light up with 15km to go from the bottom of the Mur de Huy.
Next to jump was T-Mobile’s Luxembourg national champion Kim Kirchen, bringing Di Luca and Caisse d’Epargne’s Rodriguez with him with just 10km to go. The trio joined Ivanov and Cobo to form a group of five, with a small six-second lead over a second chase group consisting of Valverde, Yaroslav Popoych (Discovery), Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) and Cristian Moreni (Cofidis). The dwindling pack sat 20 seconds behind.
Looking to give Valverde a free ride up to him, Rodriguez attacked again, bringing Kirchen with him. But a clearly motivated Di Luca brdged across and attacked, and only Valverde and Kirchen could respond. Ivanov, Dekker, Cobo and Moreni chased at eight seconds, with the field another 10 seconds back.
It looked as though the winner might come from the lead trio, but a hard-charging peloton, led by Astana’s Alexandre Vinkourov (hoping to set up Kessler), Predictor-Lotto (hoping to set up Cadel Evans) and AG2R (hoping to set up Rinaldo Nocentini), caught the leaders with 2km remaining. All that was left was the Mur de Huy.
“I put everything on the Mur,” Rebellin said. “If the group arrived together, I thought I would have my chance. But there was a big risk with the group of Di Luca and Valverde. There was chance that they would stay away. In the final kilometers Astana did a beautiful job to bring it back.”
Kessler was first to attack, opening a gap that only Rebellin could close. Saunier Duval’s emerging climber Riccardo Ricco, who impressed at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, sat just off the leaders. Rebellin was content to let Kessler set the pace up the steepest sections of the Mur, coming around him with 200 meters to go to finish alone, six seconds ahead of a resurgent Valverde, while Di Luca battled up to third. Kessler took foruth, with Ricco fifth and Nocentini sixth.
“I waited for Valverde to come. He waited too long, so I waited too long,” Di Luca said. “I saw in Amstel that Rebellin was in good shape. Even before that, at the Tour of the Basque Country, I saw he had super form. He turns 36 this year but he’s an extraordinary kind of guy. He’s been racing for almost 20 years now. I have just one word for him — superclass.”
The defending champion said he was content with his second-place result.
“After the finish, Danilo Di Luca was angry with me because I did not collaborate in the counterattack, but with Joaquím Rodríguez ahead, who was really great, it was normal for me not to collaborate,” Valverde said. “After that the bunch came very fast to catch us and to tell you the truth I did not think they were so close. One the Mur, I lacked strength on the first part, probably because I attacked earlier. But in the last meters I felt better and had the chance to pass Ricco and Kessler and finish second.”
“I’m satisfied,” Valverde said. “Today I felt much better than in the Amstel Gold Race. The team did a fantastic job and of course I would have like to win to thank them, but it is not possible to win each time. I think that the fact of being there in front, fighting for first place is a very good sign before Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I think that we will see again all the riders who were present in Amstel and today at Flèche Wallonne.”
A relaxed Rebellin, who barely looked out of breath as he crossed the line, said everything came together for him at Fléche, and he hoped it would again at Liége.
“I have the same form I had in 2004,” Rebellin said. “And you’ll remember when I won in 2004 the weather was similar to today. I haven’t done as well in cold and rain. Every year is different — no year is the same. Last year, I had an intestinal flu. This year I’ve been lucky, I haven’t had any crashes or injuries.”
Asked how much longer he intends to race, Rebellin said it’s not something to consider when you’re placing on the podium at the classics.
“As long as the results follow, there is no reason to think of retiring,” he said. “I thought of going until 2008, now I can consider racing through 2009. I can limit my program, to compete in only the races in which I can win. With the years, I know my body well now. I would very much like to win Liége. We have a strong team, and I’ll start the race with the intention of winning. It’s a race well-suited for me.”
RACE NOTESNo classics double in 2007?– If neither Schumacher nor Rebellin wins Liége on Sunday, it will be the first time the spring classics haven’t had a double winner since 2002. Last year it was Valverde (Fléche and Liége); in 2005 it was Di Luca (Amstel and Fléche) and Tom Boonen (Flanders and Roubaix); in 2004 Rebellin won all three of the Ardennes Classics; in 2003 Peter Van Petegem won Flanders and Roubaix. In 2002 Mario Cipollini won Milan-San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem, but Ghent-Wevelgem is only considered a “semi-classic,” and not a true classic.
Call it the Charleroi Accord of 2007? – ASO spokesman Matthieu Desplats said that at a team manager’s meeting Tuesday evening in Charleroi, ASO president Christian Prudhomme met with representatives from both the UCI and the teams, and all parties involved agreed that everything possible must be done to combat doping in cycling, including bringing all riders implicated in Operación Puerto to task. Though details were vague, Desplats said a briefing on what transpired in the meeting was likely to come this weekend, during Liége-Bastogne-Liége. But Desplats did say the meeting was a breakthrough, given the recent sparring between ASO and the UCI.“Can you imagine, ASO, UCI and the teams all in agreement?” Desplats said, referring to the ongoing fights between ASO and the UCI over the ProTour. “It was a very important and productive meeting.”
No ProTour presentation for Rebellin – ASO and the UCI may have found common ground on the fight against doping and the desire to flush out those implicated in Operacion Puerto, but the cold war surrounding the UCI’s ProTour wages on. There was scant mention of either the ProTour or women’s World Cup on the organizer’s end, and neither Rebellin nor Cooke were presented with the leader’s jerseys from their respective series.
German domination – The nation with the most riders in the women’s field of 138 riders was Germany, with 21. The Netherlands was second, with 18 riders, while the host country of Belgium was third, with 16. The United States was ninth, with seven riders — six from the U.S. national team plus Amber Neben (Flexpoint).
Prize inequality – First place for the men’s race Rebellin brought his team 16,000 euros, while 10th place Tadej Valjavec (Lampre-Fondital) netted 400 euros. In the women’s race, first place Marianne Vos earned 1100 euros, while 10th place rider Eva Lutz (Nürnburger) walked away with 138.
1. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, 202.5 km in 4:48:06. (42.173kph)
2. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne,at 0:06.
3. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, at0:06.
4. Matthias Kessler (G), Astana, at 0:08.
5. Riccardo Ricco (I), Saunier Duval,at 0:08.
6. Rinaldo Nocentini (I), Ag2r, at 0:13.
7. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC, at 0:16.
8. John Gadret (F), Ag2r, at 0:19.
9. Robert Gesink (Nl), Rabobank, at0:19.
10. Tadej Valjavec (Slo), Lampre, at 0:19.
11. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner, at 0:19.
12. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, at 0:19.
13. Jelle Vanendert (B), Chocolade Jacques,at 0:23.
14. Benoit Salmon (F), Agritubel, at 0:23.
15. Manuele Mori (I), Saunier Duval, at 0:25.
16. Xavier Florencio (Sp), Bouygues Télécom,at 0:27.
17. Jerome Pineau (F), Bouygues Télécom,at 0:27.
18. Eduardo Gonzalo (Sp), Agritubel, at 0:29.
19. Philippe Gilbert (B), Francaise des Jeux,at 0:31.
20. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval, at0:31.
21. Remi Pauriol (F), Credit Agricole, at0:35.
22. Alexander Efimkin (Rus), Barloworld,35.
23. Cedric Vasseur (F), Quick Step, at 0:38.
24. Patxi Vila (Sp), Lampre, at 0:40.
25. Bram Tankink (Nl), Quick Step, at 0:40.
1. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, 202.5 km in 4:48:06. (42.173kph)
2. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 0:06
3. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, at 0:06
4. Matthias Kessler (G), Astana, at 0:08
5. Riccardo Ricco (I), Saunier Duval, at 0:08
6. Rinaldo Nocentini (I), Ag2r, at 0:13
7. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC, at 0:16
8. John Gadret (F), Ag2r, at 0:19
9. Robert Gesink (Nl), Rabobank, at 0:19
10. Tadej Valjavec (Slo), Lampre, at 0:19
11. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner, at 0:19
12. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, at 0:19
13. Jelle Vanendert (B), Chocolade Jacques,at 0:23
14. Benoit Salmon (F), Agritubel, at 0:23
15. Manuele Mori (I), Saunier Duval, at 0:25
16. Xavier Florencio (Sp), Bouygues Télécom, at 0:27
17. Jerome Pineau (F), Bouygues Télécom, at 0:27
18. Eduardo Gonzalo (Sp), Agritubel, at 0:29
19. Philippe Gilbert (B), Francaise des Jeux, at 0:31
20. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval, at 0:31
21. Remi Pauriol (F), Credit Agricole, at 0:35
22. Alexander Efimkin (Rus), Barloworld at 0:35
23. Cedric Vasseur (F), Quick Step, at 0:38
24. Patxi Vila (Sp), Lampre, at 0:40
25. Bram Tankink (Nl), Quick Step, at 0:40