By John Wilcockson
The UCI ProTour has reached a turning point in its opening season. Behind us are the early (cold) stage races and the flat-landers’ spring classics. Now come the two hilly Ardennes classics (with a different set of characters, even from last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race), followed by the summertime stage races: Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie next week; Italy’s Giro and Spain’s Tour of Catalonia in May; followed by the French Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour of Switzerland in June; and all culminating with the Tour de France in July.
Like the races, the winners have also come in waves. First there was field sprinter extraordinaire, Alessandro Petacchi of Fassa Bortolo, steamrolling through February and March to cap the early season with his classics breakthrough at San Remo. Crown prince Tom Boonen of QuickStep, took up the baton to come of age at Flanders and Roubaix. Now it’s the turn of Italy’s Danilo Di Luca of Liquigas-Bianchi, a rider who appeared to be on pro cycling’s scrap heap until he delivered a classic one-two: first winning the Tour of the Basque Country and then the Amstel Gold Race.
So who will come next? Will Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège also go to Di Luca, like Davide Rebellin swept the equivalent week of classics in 2004? Or will Amstel runner-up, the Dutch veteran Michael Boogerd of Rabobank, finally win at Liège (after bypassing the Flèche)?
Another intriguing possibility is that the expected Giro protagonists, Damiano Cunego of Lampre-Caffita and Ivan Basso of CSC, will duke things out at the two Belgian Ardennes races this week. At least we know that Wednesday’s winner will be a handy climber.
As usual, the finish of the 201.5km Fleche is at the summit of the formidable Mur de Huy, a 1km climb that has a steepest pitch of 19 percent on the set of two switchbacks 400 meters before the line. If the pack is together at the foot of the wall then expect Gerolsteiner’s Rebellin to repeat, or perhaps Cofidis’s David Moncoutié will win 10 years after the last French winner, Laurent Jalabert?
The fastest climber analogy may not apply this year though because rain showers and gusting winds are forecast. Such conditions usually favor an earlier breakaway, perhaps on the second passage though Huy with 106km to go, or even on the other significant climbs, the Bohissan with 30km to go, or the Ahin, just 10km from the finish.
In the case of a breakaway, look for 2003 runner-up Aitor Osa of Illes Balears or his teammate Alejandro Valverde. Also ready for a classics win are Matthias Kessler (and his T-Mobile team!), Davide Etxebarria of Liberty Seguros, and Davitamon-Lotto’s Cadel Evans. They’d all be worthy winners.
These are the VeloNews picks for the 2005 Flèche Wallonne:5 stars
Davide Rebellin, David Etxebarria, Aitor Osa4 stars
Danilo Di Luca, Alejandro Valverde, Matthias Kessler3 stars
Thomas Dekker, Ivan Basso, Damian Cunego2 stars
Kim Kirchen, Filippo Pozzato, David Moncoutié, Cadel Evans1 star
Sylvain Chavanel, Mirko Celestino, , Axel Merckx, Jens Voigt