By John Wilcockson
Three days after Alexandre Vinokourov of Telekom clipped the wings of the climbers at last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, and four days before the more prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the 67th edition of the Flèche Wallonne has a very uncertain outcome this Wednesday. What we do know is that after his impressive Amstel performance Lance Armstrong is back home in Spain preparing himself for an assault at Liège, while his perennial Tour rival Jan Ullrich is using the Flèche as a tune-up for Sunday after scoring a stunning solo victory at Tuesday’s Tour of Cologne.
Other stars who have said they don’t want to expend too much effort on the very hilly Flèche course are Francesco Casagrande of Lampre (who was impressive at Amstel), Vinokourov (who wants to repay teammate Matthias Kessler for his help Sunday) and Fassa Bortolo’s Michele Bartoli (who is hoping that his growing form will bring him success at Liège). Missing the Flèche altogether is World Cup leader Peter Van Petegem of Lotto-Domo (who is resting, and hoping to add some World Cup points to his total on Sunday).
So who will be in contention for the win on Wednesday at the 199.5km Flèche Wallonne, a classic with a winners’ list that includes current stars Casagrande (2000), Bartoli (1999) and Armstrong (1996), and former giants of the road Bernard Hinault (1983 and ’79), Francesco Moser (1977), Eddy Merckx (1972, ’70 and ’67) and Fausto Coppi (1950)?
The smart money will be on men like Danilo Di Luca of Saeco, who says he says he has a secret wish to make a big impression at Liège; but his third-place finish on the Cauberg climb at Amstel Gold indicates his form is ideal for the even tougher hilltop finish at the Flèche. Others who finished strongly on Sunday, and are suited to the hills of the Flèche, are Telekom’s Kessler, Fassa Bortolo’s Serguei Ivanov and Ivan Basso, Gerolsteiner’s Davide Rebellin, and Domina Vacanze’s Michele Scarponi.
For the past two years. Belgians have won on home terrain: last year it was Mario Aerts, who now rides for Telekom, but is still looking for his best form; and in 2001 it was Rik Verbrugghe, the Lotto-Domo rider who crashed Sunday but later made an attack in the Amstel finale, and might well shoot for a second win at the Flèche. The other Belgian in good shape is Quick Step-Davitamon’s Frank Vandenbroucke, a former Liège winner, who might well focus on Wednesday’s classic where he has a better chance of winning.
With Armstrong absent, the only American hope is CSC’s Tyler Hamilton, who came out of the Tour of the Basque Country 10 days ago with his best-ever form at this time of the season. Last year, he made a long breakaway at the Flèche, so he knows the course very well. Given the right circumstances, he might imitate Vinokourov at Amstel and win his first-ever classic.
There are no changes to the Flèche course, which has a flat opening two hours from Charleroi to Huy, where it makes the first of three trips up the famous “wall” — less than a kilometer long but averaging almost 13 percent with a steepest pitch of 19 percent on the middle set of switchbacks. A pleasant spring day in the upper-60s Fahrenheit is forecast, although there’s a slight chance of a late shower.
Who will win? Well, Di Luca, Hamilton and Rebellin are all strong possibilities whose teams would love the publicity of such a victory.