By Ryan Newill, Special to VeloNews.com
Britain’s Nicole Cooke (Safi-Pasta Zara) once again stamped her formidable authority on the longest kilometer in cycling — the infamous Mur de Huy — taking her second win in the women’s Fleche Wallonne in Huy, Belgium on Wednesday. Cooke won her first Fleche Wallonne title in 2003.
Round 5 of 11 in this year’s women’s World Cup series, the 8th edition of the Flèche Wallonne Femmes followed the final 105km and six climbs of the 201.5km men’s race. The women’s course eliminates the men’s run from Charleroi to Huy, picking up the course as it loops through the Ardennes south of Huy.
On the slopes of the 1.1km Mur, which averages 11.8 percent and touches 19 percent in its two switchbacks, Cooke beat back the repeated charges of Australian Oenone Wood (Nürnberger) in a back-and-forth battle, finally squeezing out a four-second victory in the last 200 meters. World champion Judith Arndt was third, giving Nürnberger the second and third steps on the podium.
“When we got to the two hairpins, I started really winding it up,” said Cooke, “That’s when Oenone passed me the first time. I went past her, she came past me, and this was all in the last 500 meters.”
“With about 200 meters I made my move, and gave it absolutely everything to the line,” said Cooke of putting an end to the battle. After finishing a promising second at the Primavera Rosa in March, Cooke’s final surge gave the British champion her first World Cup victory of the 2005 season.
Action began early in day, when Australian Nathalie Bates (Van Bemmelen-AA Drink) followed an attack by Frenchwoman Beatrice Thomas (France) outside the town of Fraineux. The pair slogged away on their own for the next 40km, with the peloton content to sit back and play a bit of poker, waiting for the other team’s nerves to crack rather than chase themselves.
A surge by the peloton after the first of the day’s six climbs, the 1km, 5.3-percent ascent of the Cote de Pailhe, brought the pair close enough to let Sabrina Emmasi (Team Bigla), Katia Longhin (Michela Fanini) spring across the gap. Despite her kilometers at the front, Bates held strong as the quartet hit the second climb of the day, the Cote de Coutisse, and hung on to Emmasi’s wheel over the summit to reestablish herself as half of a leading pair.
Russian Tatiana Shishkova (PMB Fenixs) rode away from the peloton alone, catching the pair on the climb of the Côte de Bellaire. With the final three climbs, the 3.4km Côte de Bohissau, the 2.4km Côte de Ahin, and the Mur de Huy remaining, the peloton finally sprang to life under the impetus of World Cup leader Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel’s Buitenpoort-Flexpoint squad. By the foot of the Bohissau, the three leaders were within easy reach. Led by Melchers-Van Poppel’s American teammate Amber Neben, the peloton fractured on the climb, but a mass regrouping on the descent set the stage for the final showdown on the Mur.
Not wanting to get boxed in on the steep finishing climb’s narrow switchbacks Cooke went to the front on the approach, reaching the right turn onto the Mur with a clear view and Melchers-Van Poppel and Wood at her side. From there, it was more a question of strength than tactics, and just as she’d done in the past at the Flèche and the San Francisco GP, Cooke proved that she is one of the strongest in the women’s peloton when the roads turn steep.
Despite narrowly missing out on the win, Wood’s heroic efforts did not go unrewarded. With her 50 points for second place, she deservingly retook the World Cup jersey, which she surrendered to Tour of Flanders winner Melchers-Van Poppel two weeks ago. On that occasion, Wood and the rest of the Nürnberger squad were in the first chase group behind Melchers-Van Poppel and teammate Susanne Ljungskog, only to be incorrectly routed in the finale and cross the finish line in the opposite direction.
Despite the clear organizational mishap at Flanders, the group was categorized DNF, costing Wood the jersey. Initially, the UCI ruled that World Cup points would not be awarded in the race, but come the start of the Flèche Wallonne, Melchers appeared in the leader’s jersey. But after the finish, the jersey was Wood’s again, with Melchers-Van Poppel and Cooke trailing by nine and 40 points respectively.
The women’s World Cup competition resumes on May 8 at Spain’s Gran Premio Castilla y Leon.
Flèche Wallonne Femmes
April 20, Huy, Belgium
1. Nicole Cooke (GB), Safi-Pasta Zara, 106km in 2:56:56 (35.767 kph)
2. Oenone Wood (Aus), Nürnberger, at 0:04
3. Judith Arndt (G), Nürnberger, at 0:05
4. Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel (Nl), Buitenpoort-Flexpoint, at 0:10
5. Theresa Senff (G), Van Bemmelen, at 0:13
6. Andrea Graus (A), Elk Haus-Tirol Noe, at 0:14
7. Nicole Brandli (Swi), Team Bigla
8. Susanne Ljungskog (S), Buitenpoort-Flexpoint, all s.t.
9. Amber Neben (USA), Buitenpoort-Flexpoint, at 0:19
10. Edita Pucinskaite (Lit), Nobili Rubinetterie, at 0:21Women’s World Cup Standings after 5 rounds
1. Oenone Wood (Aus), Nürnberger, 165
2. Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel (Nl), Buitenpoort-Flexpoint, 156
3. Nicole Cooke (GB), Safi-Pasta Zara, 125
4. Susanne Ljungskog (S), Buitenpoort-Flexpoint, 121
5. Suzanne De Goede (Nl), Van Bemmelen, 99
6. Trixi Worrack (G), Nürnberger, 89
7. Rochelle Gilmore (Aus), Safi-Pasta Zara, 75
8. Linda Serup (Dk), Buitenpoort-Flexpoint, 52
9. Miho Oki (Jpn), 50
10. Joanne Kiesanowski (NZ), Nobili Rubinetterie, 49