By Neal Rogers
The 71st Flèche Wallonne is set to start Wednesday morning in Charleroi, Belgium, amid swirling controversy surrounding the non-participation of both Discovery Channel’s Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso and the embattled Unibet.com team.
The race’s name, meaning the “Walloon Arrow,” stems from its eastwardly course direction from the industrial city of Charleroi to Huy, in the French-speaking Walloon, or Wallonia, region of Belgium — an area that represents roughly one-third of Belgium’s population and one half of its territory.
The UCI ProTour race will feature a start list of 24 teams for its 202.5km course, while the women’s World Cup event will feature 24 teams riding a 104km course that starts and finishes in Huy. In addition to the 19 ProTour teams, five continental professional men’s teams received invitations: Agritubel, Barloworld, Chocolade Jacques, Landbouwkrediet and Tinkoff Credit Systems.
Both races will end atop the steep Mur de Huy (The wall of Huy), which averages above a 10-percent gradient and dishes up a switchback section of more than 20 percent.
As with the Cauberg on last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, the men’s peloton will cross the Mur three times, with the final ascent culminating in the finish. The women’s peloton climbs the wall just once, at the finish. At 1300 meters long, the Mur is just long and steep enough to transcend being labeled a pure “power climb.” An explosive sprint from the bottom of the Mur will run out of steam before the top. Instead, riders must measure their efforts to save something for the top, where the gradient levels off slightly.
“It’s four minutes of pain, but it’s a silent pain because all the fans screaming in your ear puts you into a zone where you can only focus on what you’re going through,” said American Amber Neben, who placed fifth last year in the women’s World Cup race and returns with her Dutch squad Flexpoint.
Returning champions Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Épargne) and Nicole Cooke (Raleigh-Lifeforce) will be at their respective start lines to defend their titles. Last year Valverde overpowered Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and the CSC teammates Karsten Kroon and Fränk Schleck, while Cooke out-sprinted German Judith Arndt (T-Mobile) to take her third Flèche title in four years.
Valverde, who placed sixth at the Amstel Gold Race, returns as a heavy favorite. Because of the similarities between Amstel and Flèche — although Wednesday’s race features fewer climbs — top riders from Amstel should all be considered favorites, meaning Gerolsteiner’s 1-2 team of Stefan Schumacher and Davide Rebellin, who won Fléche in 2004, will be heavily marked. Other former Flèche winners include 2003 champ Igor Astarloa (Milram) and 2005 winner Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) — who finished third at Amstel on Sunday.
Shockwaves reverberated through the start town of Charleroi Tuesday as it was announced that Discovery Channel rider Ivan Basso would not start. The Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport reported Tuesday that the decision comes following an agreement between Discovery Channel team officials and race organizer ASO, which runs the Tour de France as well as the two upcoming Ardennes classics.
Also absent from the start is troubled team Unibet.com which was dealt a new blow when a court in Brussels, Belgium, dismissed a case brought forth by the UCI and the team against ASO, the organizers of the Tour de France as well as the two Ardennes classics, for excluding the team from its events. UCI Pro Tour rules stipulate that all 20 ProTour teams, of which Unibet.com is one, must be invited to take part in ProTour races, but ASO has excluded the team, now re-christened Green Cycle Associates (the name of its co-sponsor), because of a French law against betting sponsorship in sports.
Unibet.com raced Sunday at the Amstel Gold Race in The Netherlands; its riders did not feature prominently in the day’s breakaways, or in the top 20. However with less racing days than other ProTour teams the team has been at a distinct disadvantage this year, as ASO previously barred Unibet.com from Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix.
One rider everyone will be sure to watch is Astana team leader Alex Vinokourov, who returns to competition in support of German teammates Matthias Kessler, fourth in Amstel Sunday, and Andreas Klöden.
Other top favorites include Sanchez, 15th at Amstel; world champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic), who has never won Flèche but finished seventh in Valkenberg on Sunday; Discovery Channel’s Paris-Nice winner Alberto Contador, who excels on short, steep climbs; and cocky Italian Riccardo Riccò, whose exploits at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo have established him as an exciting rider to watch.
Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong is the only American to have won the Flèche Wallonne, during his 1996 season that was cut short due to testicular cancer. Canadian Geneviève Jeanson won the race in 2000, and later fell afoul of the sport’s anti-doping agency when she missed a post-race drug test in 2004. Bobby Julich (CSC) and Canadian Michael Barry (T-Mobile) are the sole North Americans set to start. American Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto) will start Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race where he finished eighth last year.
While Cooke comes as the overwhelming favorite for the women’s race, USA Cycling women’s national team director Jim Miller said world champion Marianne Vos could unseat the Welsh rider in Huy. At the April 21 Ronde van Gelderland Vos initiated and drove a nine-woman breakaway, was briefly steered off course, chased back on to the peloton and then won a field sprint, beating German sprint ace Ina Teutenberg (T-Mobile). The USA Cycling national team will likely pin its hopes on national champion Kristin Armstrong.
Both the men’s and women’s races will feature the same hilly finishing circuit around Huy. This is different from previous years, and features four new climbs before tackling the usual trio of climbs that culminate in the Mur de Huy. The new climbs are not particularly difficult on their own, but coming at intervals of between 5km and 10km on narrow back roads through the wooded farm country of the Ardennes, they will make both races much more selective.
“The modification, with two more climbs, Thon and Bonneville, seems to be very interesting”, said Valverde in a release. “The selection could take place sooner than last year. It is very probable that the race will already break from 50 kilometers to the finish. I believe that there will be a real battle in the final. I am very motivated and I think that all the team is very ready for making a great work. I don’t know if we will be able to win again like we did last year, but I hope that we will be there, fighting for the top spots.”
After a 65km rolling route from Charleroi to Huy, the men’s race will cross the Mur de Huy and cover two circuits, including the major one of 104km; the women’s peloton will ride just the final circuit, starting at the top of the Mur de Huy at 12:00, with an expected finish at around 3:10 pm. The men’s field will depart from Charleroi at 11:15 a.m., and is expected to finish at the top of the Mur de Huy at around 4:20 p.m.
Provisional starting list:
(* equals alternate)CAISSE D’ÉPARGNESANCHEZ Luis-Leon (Sp)RODRIGUEZ Joaquim (Sp)PORTAL Nicolas (F)PEREZ SANCHEZ Francisco (Sp)LOPEZ GARCIA David (Sp)LASTRAS GARCIA Pablo (Sp)GARCIA ACOSTA Vicente (Sp)VALVERDE Alejandro (Sp)* ZABALLA Constantino (Sp)* REYNES Vicente (Sp)* ERVITI Imanol (Sp)* BRARD Florent (F)EUSKALTEL – EUSKADIVERDUGO Gorka (Sp)PEREZ Ruben (Sp)LANDALUZE Iñigo (Sp)GALDOS ALONSO Aitor (Sp)ETXEBARRIA Unai (Vz)BRU Yon (Sp)ASTARLOZA Mikel (Sp)SANCHEZ Samuel (Sp)* LAFUENTE Andoni (Sp)* APERRIBAY Lander (Sp)TEAM CSCVOIGT Jens (G)SORENSEN Nicki (Dk)SCHLECK Andy (Lux)SASTRE Carlos (Sp)KROON Karsten (Nl)KOLOBNEV Alexandr (Rus)JULICH Bobby (USA)SCHLECK Frank (Lux)* VANDE VELDE Christian (USA)* GUSTOV Volodymir (Ukr)* BAK Lars (Dk)T-MOBILE TEAMZIEGLER Thomas (G)SINKEWITZ Patrik (G)ROGERS Michael (Aus)MERCKX Axel (B)GUERINI Giuseppe (I)DAVIS Scott (Aus)BARRY Michael (Can)KIRCHEN Kim (Lux)* PINOTTI Marco (I)* PIIL Jakob (Dk)* HONCHAR Serhiy (Ukr)* HANSEN Adam (Aus)LIQUIGASSPEZIALETTI Alessandro (I)KREUZINGER Roman (Cz)FAILLI Francesco (I)CARLSTRÖM Kjell (F)CAPECCHI Eros (I)CALCAGNI Patrick (Swi)ALBASINI Michael (Swi)DI LUCA Danilo (I)* WILLEMS Frederik (B)* WEGELIUS Charles (GB)ASTANAYAKOVLEV Serguei (Kz)MORABITO Steve (Swi)KLÖDEN Andreas (G)KESSLER Matthias (G)IVANOV Serguei (Rus)COLOM Antonio (Sp)ABAKOUMOV Igor (B)VINOKOUROV Alexandre (Kz)* REDONDO Jose Antonio (Sp)* MIZOUROV Andrey (Kz)* IGLINSKIY Maxim (Kz)* BAZAYEV Assan (Kz)SAUNIER DUVAL – PRODIRSIMONI Gilberto (I)MORI Manuele (I)LOBATO Ruben (Sp)DE LA FUENTE David (Sp)COBO ACEBO Juan Jose (Sp)CAMANO Iker (Sp)BENITEZ José (Sp)RICCO Riccardo (I)* MAYO Iban (Sp)* DEL NERO Jesus (Sp)GEROLSTEINERZBERG Markus (Swi)ZBERG Beat (Swi)WEGMANN Fabian (G)SCHUMACHER Stefan (G)SCHOLZ Ronny (G)RUSS Matthias (G)HIEKMANN Torsten (G)REBELLIN Davide (I)* ZAUGG Oliver (Swi)* ORDOWSKI Volker (G)* KOHL Bernhard (A)* FROHLINGER Johannes (G)QUICK STEP – INNERGETICVISCONTI Giovanni (I)VERHEYEN Geert (B)VASSEUR Cédric (F)VAN DE WALLE Jurgen (B)TOSATTO Matteo (I)TANKINK Bram (Nl)BARREDO Carlos (Sp)BETTINI Paolo (I)* ROSSELER Sébastien (B)* HULSMANS Kevin (B)* ENGELS Addy (Nl)* BAGUET Serge (B)AGRITUBELVOGONDY Nicolas (F)SALMON Benoit (F)HERVE Cédric (F)GONZALO RAMIREZ Eduardo (Sp)DUENAS NEVADO Moises (Sp)CALVENTE Manuel (Sp)BICHOT Freddy (F)MERCADO Juan Miguel (Sp)* MARTINEZ José Alberto (Sp)* JALABERT Nicolas (F)* FEILLU Romain (F)* BARANAUSKAS Aivaras (Lit)BARLOWORLDSABIDO Hugo (P)LONGO BORGHINI Paolo (I)EFIMKIN Alexander (Rus)COX Ryan (RSA)CHEULA Gianpaolo (I)CACCIA Diego (I)BONOMI Giosuè (I)CARDENAS Félix (Col)* PERRY James Lewis (RSA)* HUNTER Robert (RSA)* AUGUSTYN John-Lee (RSA)* ARREITUNANDIA Pedro (Sp)TEAM MILRAM* TERPSTRA Niki (Nl)* SCHWAGER Sebastian (G)* SABATINI Fabio (I)* GHISALBERTI Sergio (I)SCOGNAMIGLIO Carlo (I)SCHRÖDER Björn (G)POITSCHKE Enrico (G)LORENZETTO Mirco (I)JURCO Matej (Svk)GRIVKO Andriy (Ukr)CELESTINO Mirko (I)ASTARLOA Igor (Sp)PREDICTOR – LOTTOVAN HUFFEL Wim (B)VAN (Dk) BROECK Jurgen (B)MERTENS Pieter (B)LLOYD Matthew (Aus)CIONI Dario (I)AERTS Mario (B)EVANS Cadel (Aus)INGELS Nic (B)* HORNER Chris (USA)* DOCKX Bart (B)* VAN SUMMEREN Johan (B)DISCOVERY CHANNELPOPOVYCH Yaroslav (Ukr)PAULINHO Sergio (P)MARTINEZ Egoi (Sp)GUSEV Vladimir (Rus)DEVOLDER Stijn (B)DAVIS Allan (Aus)CONTADOR Alberto (Sp)* VAN GOOLEN Jurgen (B)* RUBIERA José Luis (Sp)* LOWE Trent (Aus)* BEPPU Fumiyuki (Jpn)FRANÇAISE DES JEUXVEIKKANEN Jussi (F)VAUGRENARD Benoît (F)MC GEE Bradley (Aus)MARICHAL Thierry (B)LÖVKVIST Thomas (S)DETILLOUX Christophe (B)CASAR Sandy (F)GILBERT Philippe (B)* MONNERAIS Cyrille (F)* (G)ARD Arnaud (F)* DI GREGORIO Rémy (F)BOUYGUES TELECOMVOECKLER Thomas (F)SPRICK Matthieu (F)ROUS Didier (F)LEFEVRE Laurent (F)FLORENCIO Xavier (Sp)DRANCOURT Pierre (F)CLEMENT Stef (Nl)PINEAU Jérôme (F)* TSCHOPP Johann (Swi)* LE BOULANGER Yoann (F)* FEDRIGO Pierrick (F)* BONNAIRE Olivier (F)AG2R PRÉVOYANCETURPIN Ludovic (F)NOCENTINI Rinaldo (I)GOUBERT Stéphane (F)GERRANS Simon (Aus)GADRET John (F)DUMOULIN Samuel (F)ARRIETA Jose Luis (Sp)MOREAU Christophe (F)* RIBLON Christophe (F)* MANDRI René (Est)* DUPONT Hubert (F)* CALZATI Sylvain (F)RABOBANKWEENING Pieter (Nl)WALKER William (Aus)MOERENHOUT Koos (Nl)MENCHOV Denis (Rus)GESINK Robert (Nl)ELTINK Theo (Nl)DEKKER Thomas (Nl)BOOGERD Michael (Nl)* (Vz)EBERG Thorwald (Nl)* LANGEVELD Sebastian (Nl)* FREIRE Oscar (Sp)* DE GROOT Bram (Nl)LAMPRE-FONDITALVALJAVEC Tadej (Slo)SZMYD Sylvester (Pol)STANGELJ Gorazd (Slo)RIGHI Daniele (I)CARUSO Giampaolo (I)BOSSONI Paolo (I)BONO Matteo (I)VILA ERRANDONEA Patxi (Sp)* TIRALONGO Paolo (I)* POSSONI Morris (I)* MARZANO Marco (I)* GAVAZZI Francesco (I)COFIDISZAMPIERI Steve (Swi)MORENI Cristian (I)MONFORT Maxime (B)MOINARD Amaël (F)FERNANDEZ Bingen (Sp)DUQUE Leonardo (Col)CHAVANEL Sylvain (F)VERBRUGGHE Rik (B)* PARRA Ivan Ramiro (Col)* MINARD Sébastien (F)* HARY Maryan (F)* BUFFAZ Mickaël (F)CRÉDIT AGRICOLEPOILVET Benoit (F)PAURIOL Rémi (F)LE MEVEL Christophe (F)KAGGESTAD Mads NORHALGAND Patrice (F)FOFONOV Dmitriy (Kz)BOTCHAROV Alexandre (Rus)BELLOTTI Francesco (I)* MARINO Jean Marc (F)* HIVERT Jonathan (F)* EDALEINE Christophe (F)* CHARTEAU Anthony (F)CHOCOLADE JACQUES – TOPSPORTVEUCHELEN Frederik (B)VANENDERT Jelle (B)RENDERS Jens (B)PAUWELS Serge (B)MAES Nicolas (B)GHYLLEBERT Pieter (B)COENEN Johan (B)STUBBE Tom (B)* VERBIST Evert (B)* DE SCHROODER Benny (B)* DE HAES Kenny (B)* BARBE Koen (B)TINKOFF CREDIT SYSTEMSTRUSSOV Nicolaï (Rus)SERRANO GONZALES Ricardo (Sp)SEROV Alexander (Rus)ROVNY Yvan (Rus)PETROV Evgeni (Rus)KIRYIENKA Vasil (Blr)COMMESSO Salvatore (I)IGNATIEV Mikhail (Rus)LANDBOUWKREDIET – TONISSTEINERSIJMENS Nico (B)LEBEAU Jean-Claude (B)KUYCKX Jan (B)KLEYNEN Steven (B)GABRIEL Frédéric (F)DE WAELE Bert (B)CAPPELLE Andy (B)AMORISON Frédéric (B)* MANNING Paul (GB)* BOUCHER David (F)