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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The Flèche and Trentino, two hilltop sprints, two different stories

John Wilcockson re-caps Flèche Wallonne and compares its victor to the those on the podium at the concurrent Giro del Trentino.

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Men's podium
Men's podium at Fleche Wallonne

While the 74th Flèche Wallonne classic was being brilliantly won on Wednesday afternoon by BMC Racing’s world champion Cadel Evans ahead of the Spanish climbers Joaquin Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Igor Anton, a more worrisome uphill sprint was being played out 1,000km away in the Dolomites of Italy. There, in the ski town of San Martino di Castrozza, the podium of the Giro del Trentino’s second stage was occupied by three riders who recently came off long doping suspensions, Riccardo Riccò, Alexander Vinokourov and Ivan Basso.

The event’s official live ticker called it a “regal podium.” The word “tarnished” would be more appropriate to describe that podium. Riccò was thrown out of the 2008 Tour de France for twice testing positive for EPO-CERA; Vinokourov was ejected from the 2007 Tour for a blood-doping positive; and Basso, who was excluded from the 2006 Tour, admitted that his name was among the clients (though not an active one, he said) of the Operación Puerto blood-doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes

We can only hope that these three men are now riding clean, but perhaps there was significance in what Riccò said after his stage win on Wednesday: “This was no doubt a great win against such great riders. After the finish, Vinokourov came to congratulate me. I didn’t see Basso though.”

It seems clear that Basso, still considered one of the nicest family men in the sport, was not keen to be associated with the other two. Since admitting that he had considered blood doping with Dr. Fuentes (but only after the Italian Olympic Committee showed him proof that his name was on the Puerto clients’ list), Basso has trained hard and long. He works with a new trainer, Aldo Sassi at the Mapei Sport Research Center, who has been the coach of Cadel Evans ever since the Aussie raced for the now defunct Mapei pro team in 2002.

Evans is aware that Liquigas’s Basso and Team Astana’s Vinokourov will be among his strongest opponents in next month’s Giro, but not Riccò, whose Flaminia team has not been invited. Racing aganst men with doping records is nothing new to Evans, and his win at the summit of the Mur de Huy on Wednesday was also a victory for the anti-doping movement (Last year’s Flèche Wallonne winner, Davide Rebellin, was caught in the anti-doping net when a retroactive test from the 2008 Olympics came up positive for EPO-CERA in late 2009.).

Flèche unchanged, despite changes

The outcome in this year’s Flèche was not a whole lot different from the finishes over the past five years, despite the course modification that forced the riders to climb the much-feared Mur de Huy twice in the final 30km. As in the recent past, a huge peloton — this time more than 60 strong — arrived at the foot of the infamous wall with one kilometer remaining. The tactics had been different, but what really hampers this hilly classic being more selective is its relative shortness.

At 198km, the Flèche is 60km shorter than both last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race and this coming Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. That extra distance (along with more climbs) winnows out many of the wheel suckers (those who just wait for the uphill dash to the line), and gives the day’s stronger teams (and their leaders) a better chance of victory.

On paper, the strongest teams on Wednesday were Saxo Bank and Katusha. Saxo was prominent in bringing back the early break from an 8:30 maximum lead, but things changed with about 70km to go when co-leader Andy Schleck got caught up in a nasty pileup that put RadioShack’s Yaroslav Popovych out of the race and delayed dozens of riders, most of whom pulled out before the finish. (BMC Racing’s Karsten Kroon crashed on the day’s final descent and ended up in the hospital with multiple fractures of the face.)

“I lost a lot of time with the crash,” reported the younger Schleck. “It took me 30km to get back to the front. So then I worked for Fränk.”

Andy Schleck leads Philippe Gilbert and Contador on the second ascent of the Mur de Huy.
Andy Schleck leads Philippe Gilbert and Contador on the second ascent of the Mur de Huy.

Indeed, Andy Schleck impressively pulled the peloton the whole way up the Mur de Huy with 30km to go, enabling brother Fränk to make a strong attack over the plateau summit with Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas. They were joined by Rabobank’s Bram Tankink and Lampre’s Davide Loosli, both the remnants of earlier breaks, but there was not enough horse power to make their move successful.

Fränk Schleck said, “Andy did a great job and I felt strong, but it was simply the wrong guys in the break. Tankink did not want to take responsibility in our work, and he used teammate Robert Gesink in the peloton as an alibi.”

Had Tankink played his part in the breakaway (Loosli was tired from being out front for more than 100km), the quartet may well have gained more than their maximum of 27 seconds midway around the finishing loop. They were eventually swept up inside 5km to go.

Strongest finishers

Astana chases
Astana chases

Two teams were largely responsible for the break’s demise. Two of Contador’s Kazakh teammates, Maxim Iglinsky and Valentin Fofonov, rode tempo for much of the final loop to keep the gap hovering around 20 seconds; and Katusha’s two Russians Serguei Ivanov and Alexandr Kolobnev both made strong solo attacks out of the peloton with, respectively, 12km and 8km to go.

Kolobnev — just like his solo break in the Amstel Gold Race — was caught right before the climb to the finish. His and Ivanov’s efforts opened up the chances for their Spanish leader Joaquin Rodriguez, who said he didn’t have the confidence to fully exploit the uphill finish because of the stomach virus that weakened him in the Amstel last Sunday.

Rodriguez is a specialist at this type of hill, having twice won the Montelupone stage of Tirreno-Adriatico that has a finishing climb featuring a 22-percent wall. The Mur de Huy is similar, averaging 10 percent with a maximum slope of 19 percent on the two corners 500 meters from the line.

Despite his reticence, Rodriguez cleverly stayed on Evans’s wheel when the world champion moved up to shadow the strong efforts of Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Contador through the ultra-steep turns. Evans (in ascendant form after a few weeks of training for the Giro) was able to stay in breathing distance of Contador when the two-time Tour de France champ made his expected burst, dropping Anton. The Aussie was then able to launch his own acceleration in the always-decisive final 100 meters, while Rodriguez also passed a grimacing Contador before the line.

Over in Italy a few minutes earlier, there were still 25 riders together when they reached the last meters of the 14.5km-long climb to San Martino di Castrozza, where Ricco easily out-sprinted Vinokourov and Basso to take his third victory since returning to the sport last month after a 20-month suspension.

It was on this same finishing line almost a year ago that another Italian, Danilo Di Luca, took a similar sprint from a group of 33 riders to win stage 4 of the Giro — a race in which Di Luca finished in second place before he, too, was found to have tested positive for EPO-CERA and was suspended for two years.

In this time of transition to what is becoming a much cleaner sport, there will continue to be results like Wednesday’s. That’s why cycling needs to celebrate the untarnished victories — just as Cadel Evans was doing Wednesday night at his Liège hotel, sharing champagne with his BMC Racing teammates and staff. It’s gratifying that the good guys sometimes win.

Rodriguez now world No. 1

Amstel Gold Race winner Philippe Gilbert had hoped to take over the No. 1 sport in the World Calendar rankings, but the 22 points he scored for sixth place in the Flèche Wallonne only moved him up to second. The 60 points Rodriguez earned at the summit of the Mur gave him a season total of 268 points, putting him 36 points ahead of Gilbert, while former No. 1 Luis León Sanchez didn’t score, leaving him in third on 222 points.

(Editor’s Note: The UCI releases official world rankings on Mondays. The updated rankings are always reachable from our homepage leaderboard.)