By Andrew Hood
Look no further than the results sheet from Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race to see who’ll be bucking for the win in Wednesday’s mid-week classic at 72nd Flèche Wallonne.
With the menacing wall at the Mur de Huy waiting at the end of the 10-climb, 199.5km course, the punchy climbers who shined on the Cauberg will be looking to hit the repeat button.
Twenty-five teams with eight riders each will line up in Charleroi and push down the Sambre and Meusse valleys before hitting two hilly finishing circuits that include three passages up the Mur.
It’s the last passage that counts and the favorites will send their lieutenants en masse to the front to control inevitable breakaways that come early in the race.
The Mur is an otherwise anonymous 1.3km stretch of asphalt averaging 9.3 percent sandwiched between row houses. Its ramps as steep as 16 percent and the Mur has become one of cycling’s most dynamic spectacles as the peloton’s elite flay themselves up the punishing climb.
Damiano Cunego, fresh off his stunning victory on the Cauberg at Amstel, would love to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Davide Rebellin and win for the second time in three days.
Rebellin won last year, but before that he was victorious in Amstel and Flèche en route to his Ardennes triple capped by Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2004 and you can’t help but imagine Italy’s “Little Prince” is thinking he can pull off the same thing.
“I’m surprised I won Amstel because the real goals this week are Flèche and Liège,” Cunego said. “The Amstel win gives me extra confidence going into this week. These are the most important races in the first part of my season. I’m optimistic we can do something special.”
Defending champ Rebellin prefers to let his legs do the talking, but they went mute Sunday when they cramped up just as Frank Schleck revved up his attack with 500 meters to go on the Cauberg.
Flèche’s punchier finish suits Rebellin well, perhaps more so than even Amstel and Liège, so he can’t be counted out. Teammates Fabian Wegmann and Stefan Schumacher assure a strong and vigilant Gerolsteiner to help control the race.
Team CSC will bring a motivated Schleck and Karsten Kroon looking to make up for Sunday’s close call. Kroon, third in 2006, will be especially active as the Mur better favors his style while Schleck could be already looking ahead to Liège on Sunday.
Alejandro Valverde (winner in 2006) will lead a loaded Caisse d’Epargne team that also includes Joaquin Rodríguez, who finished in the winning break Sunday, Luís León Sánchez and Oscar Pereiro.
Somewhat surprisingly, Valverde doesn’t count himself among the favorites despite taking third in Amstel.
“The spring classics aren’t a major goal for me, so I have to be happy about how I’m riding,” he said. “At Amstel, the plan was more to ride the distance to prepare for Liège, but I felt good in the right moments and was able to contend for the victory. I can only hope for the same the rest of this week.”
Rabobank will try again with Thomas Dekker, fifth on Sunday, but he admits that he was at his limit in front of the home crowds. Also lining up will be Oscar Freire and Robert Gesink.
“I don’t know how I will manage at Flèche because I was really on my limit at Amstel. I have to be satisfied with fifth because against an elite group like that, there’s not much more to expect,” Dekker said. “I really had to fight to get into that last move. We’ll see how the legs react later this week.”
Several top riders chose to skip the nervous, harrowing roads of Holland’s Limburg region and will parachute in for the Ardennes double.
Leading this list is the Silence-Lotto pair of Cadel Evans and Yaroslav Popovych. Both have been on very good early-season form, with Evans looking particularly keen to post a strong ride at Liège.
Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) is another rider who skipped Amstel and can be counted on to deliver a solid performance. The improving Spaniard scored a nice stage win at Paris-Nice and will be anxious to take advantage of his opportunity to ride as a captain due to the absence of team star Bettini.
The banged-up Bettini is racing the Giro di Trentino this week in an effort to put in some miles and recover from a cracked rib he suffered at Basque Country, but the Cricket hopes to bounce back for Liège.
High Road lines up with Kim Kirchen, who rode well at Amstel, while Slipstream-Chipotle brings a strong crew after putting four riders into a good group on Sunday.
Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) will be there, but it’s uncertain about Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott), who pulled out ahead of Sunday’s Amstel.
Vos, Cooke to battle on Mur
The 103km women’s race should see a showdown between Nicole Cooke (Great Britain) and Marianne Vos (DSB Bank). Just like the men’s race, the women’s course ends atop the fearsome Mur de Huy, providing a perfect platform for a duel between the sport’s leading riders.
Cooke has been queen of the Mur of late, winning three out of four editions from 2003 to 2006, but archrival Vos upstaged her last year to claim a dramatic victory to reveal surprising climbing abilities to go along with her lethal sprint.
Vos will be keen to show her strength on the climbs after her victory in the world track championships in the points race, a performance that gives the Dutch star another option for gold in the upcoming Summer Olympic Games.
High Road will bring a motivated team led by Judith Arndt, who will be hoping to move up to the top spot on the podium after finishing on lower steeps in the past three editions. Chantal Beltman and Oenone Wood give High Road solid depth.
Kristin Armstrong (Cervelo-LifeForce) will be looking to win for the first time while Fabiana Luperini (Menikini-Selle Italia) is a three-time winner at Flèche, but her last win came in 2002, a lifetime ago against the younger legs of Vos and Cooke.