By John Wilcockson
With its shorter distance and steeper finish, the Flèche Wallonne is a perfect transition from last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race and next Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The Flèche is only 202km, compared with the Amstel’s 253km and Liège’s 262km, and that shorter distance sometimes gives early breaks a better chance of survival, but the finish on the infamous Mur de Huy (a kilometer at 9.5 percent, with two bends topping 19 percent in the middle) gives the Flèche its defining feature.
The past two years, Amstel winners Danilo Di Luca (2005) and Davide Rebellin (2004) have also won the Flèche, so this week’s first-time classics champion Fränk Schleck of CSC is a logical favorite for Wednesday’s race, the ninth event in the 2006 UCI ProTour. But Schleck dug very deep to hold onto the Amstel win in a 10km-long break, whereas Di Luca and Rebellin won both races in small finishing sprints.
Di Luca didn’t race at Amstel on Sunday, and he is using the Flèche as a warm-up for Liège, as that is the race he would really like to win prior to his aiming at the maglia rosa in the Giro d’Italia, which starts here in Belgium on May 6. The other major new arrival for the two Ardennes classics is CSC’s Ivan Basso, who has the same ambitions as Di Luca. Basso should be in the mix at La Flèche, but he’ll probably lend a hand to teammate Schleck or CSC’s other recent winner, Carlos Sastre, who took the Klasika Primavera in Spain last week.
Also on the start line in Charleroi on Wednesday will be Aussie climber Cadel Evans of Davitamon-Lotto, who loves these two races and was in the coup at both of them in 2005. At the Flèche, Evans was right at the front of the lead group on the early slopes of the Mur de Huy finish, but not having ridden the race before he waited too long to attack and finished up in ninth. He was even stronger at Liège, making the defining attack on the last climb and ending up in fifth. He should do even better this year.
Evans didn’t race the Amstel Gold Race, where the strongest Davitamon rider was American Chris Horner. After placing 20th on Sunday, Horner said, “Hopefully the legs will come a little bit better for Flèche and then Liège it’ll come a little bit better. We’ll just have to see.”
Neither T-Mobile’s Steffen Wesemann, who was a solo second at Amstel after a very aggressive performance, nor Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini may have recovered enough for another assault on Wednesday. Instead, expect Wesemann’s teammate Patrick Sinkewitz (fifth at Amstel) to be the German team’s main contender at the Flèche, perhaps with Kim Kirchen (second to Di Luca last year at Huy) also making a bid for victory. As for Quick Step, Juan Manuel Garate could take up the challenge should Bettini reserve his best effort for Liège.
The other top favorites Wednesday are Rebellin (who could help Gerolsteiner teammate Fabian Wegmann to a top finish); Rabobank’s Thomas Dekker (team leader Michael Boogerd is missing the Flèche to be better prepared for Liège); Phonak’s Swiss veteran Alexandre Moos; Liberty’s David Etxebarria (excellent at Amstel) and teammate Alberto Contador; Caisse d’Épargne’s Alejandro Valverde; and the Italians Francesco Bellotti of Crédit Agricole and Leonardo Bertagnolli of Cofidis.
Besides Sastre, Etxebarria and Contador, there are another half-dozen Spanish riders with aspirations of success on the Mur de Huy — Igor Astarloa of Barloworld, Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Koldo Gil of Saunier Duval, Francisco Mancebo of AG2R, Juan Mercado of Agritubel and Carlos Garcia Quesada of Unibet.com.
Besides Horner, two other Americans will be on the start line, Pat McCarty of Phonak and Christian Vande Velde of CSC, who are both in contention for a slot on their respective Giro teams. As for the women’s edition of the Flèche Wallonne, there is a U.S. national team led by Tina Pic and Rebecca Larson, while Amber Neben of Dutch team Buitenpoort and Kim Bruckner of T-Mobile have a better chance of shining on this climbers’ course.
The 25 women’s teams will tackle only the 106km loop that closes the men’s classic — with the men climbing the Mur de Huy twice in 30km before heading off on the final loop. Besides the Mur at the finish, the clockwise loop contains four other (less steep) climbs: the Pailhe (69.5km from the end), Hautebisse (with 47.5km to go), Bohissau (28.5km to go) and Ahin (with 11km left).
This will be the fourth round of the 12-race UCI Women’s World Cup and could see another battle between former Flèche winners, Britain’s Nicole Cooke of the new Swiss team Univega and Italy’s Fabiana Luperini of Fassa Bortolo. Also in at the kill should be defending World Cup champion, Aussie Oenone Wood of Team Nürnberger; the Germans Judith Arndt of T-Mobile, Theresa Senff of A-A Drinks and Hanke Kupfernagel of the German national team; Dutch star Mirjam Melchers of Buitenpoort, recent winner of the Tour of Flanders; Swiss Nicole Brändli of Team Bigla; and Russian veteran Svetlana Bubnenkova of Fenix..
Look for detailed reports of the men’s and women’s Flèche Wallonne from Huy on VeloNews.com on Wednesday.