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FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (VN) — The steep ramps of the Mur de Huy await the peloton Wednesday at La Flèche Wallonne. Will Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sunguard) pull the win that so narrowly escaped him in 2010 or will Leopard-Trek’s Andy and Fränk Schleck erase the memory of an Amstel Gold Race that went south late?
And what of the women? Emma Pooley’s (Garmin-Cervélo) fractured collarbone means it won’t be two in a row for the British defending champion. Will Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) make it a round four wins on the Mur or will Judith Arndt lead a threesome of capable HTC-Highroad women to the podium?
The 75th La Flèche Wallonne (it will be the 14th women’s edition) winds its way through the hilly Walloon region of southeastern Belgium from the town of Charleroi. Ten tough walls — short, steep climbs — will challenge many of the sport’s top climbers over 201 kilometers. The Mur de Huy, 1.3 kilometers long with a maximum gradient north of 20 percent will ceremoniously — and welcome riders to the walls that mark the final two-thirds of the race. The Mur, with its painted tarmac carrying its name past seven chapels above Huy, features three times total, twice in the final 30 kilometers.
The women face a shorter parcours, with one less ascent of the Mur, but the 110 kilometers they cover around Huy are the sharpest of the men’s race.
Arguably the most difficult test in all of the spring classics, the final climb to the finish atop the Mur de Huy has often been the decisive moment in the “Walloon Arrow.” This has been so much so in the last decade that last year organizers ASO changed the route to add more difficulty earlier in the race.
Then-world champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) played out the same script, though, riding onto Contador’s wheel and jumping late on the final 10-plus-percent ramp for the win (Related: Evans wins 2010 Fleche Wallonne). Evans’ move came two years after Kim Kirchen did nearly the same to him high on the wall. (Related: A mur too far for Evans at the 2008 Fleche Wallone)
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Before crossing the Meuse River to the entrance of the Mur, the parcours rolls from Charleroi, but doesn’t carry much bite. When the likely breakaway and peloton roll to the base of the climb after a quick downhill run through Huy, the race is on. All of the 10 climbs lie in the final 130 kilometers of circuits near town.
With the penultimate ascent of the Mur coming 30 kilometers before the finish, followed by the 2.1-km, 5.9-percent Côte d’Ereffe at 11 kilometers to go, the front of the race will be electric. Last year Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) tried in vain to force a selection entering the final, short circuit. The ever aggressive Alexander Kolobnev (Katusha) snuck away solo after a reshuffling in the long breakaway, but was caught at the river. The peloton arrived to the Mur more than 40 deep and Evans triumphed after closing a 10-bike gap to Contador and Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
A pre-race recon was key, said Evans at the time. “Even though I’ve raced here several times, I never did a recon before a Flèche. (BMC sport director) John Lelangue took us out and I saw the climb in a different light and I realized that I was always attacking too soon before.”
The same storyline will likely play out Wednesday, but some of the players will be different. Evans is not here, out with a quadriceps injury he suffered in training a few weeks ago. Caisse d’Epargne (now Movistar) reeled Kolbnev in last year; their former winner Alejandro Valverde is out on a doping ban, but they may be present with David Lopez Garcia and Xavier Tondo.
Contador will be in Charleroi and almost certainly again at the base of the Mur. The embattled Tour de France champion won the time trial at the Vuelta a Castilla y León Saturday after puncturing off the front of the finish climb the day before. He was sick earlier in the week and was quiet in his hopes. “I am going to try to recovery as fast as possible from my cold, even though I doubt there will be time before Flèche,” said Contador.
Andy and Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) found vastly different results at Amstel Gold, the former soloing to the base of the Cauberg from the final selection before being overtaken while his brother crashed before the Kruisberg climb and never saw the front of the race again. Fränk called the result a “punch in the stomach,” and will be motivated to find the front page before the pair’s top objective, Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Former winner Danilo Di Luca will start as well, but his Katusha teammate Juaquim “El Purito” Rodríguez will carry the number 11 on his back. Rodriguez finished second in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race to Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) on a finish climb less suited to him than the strong Belgian. The Mur is a perfect pitch for the 2010 UCI ProTour champion and he enters Wednesday as a top favorite.
Other favorites include Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD), Simon Gerrans (Team Sky), Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and former winner Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana).
Garmin-Cervélo’s Ryder Hesjedal fell ill with a stomach bug at Amstel Gold, but should be back. HTC-Highroad’s Tejay Van Garderen is no stranger to Contador’s wheel and could mark another breakthrough in his young palmarés with a podium finish in Huy.
In the women’s race, World Cup leader Annamiek Van Vleuten (Nederlands Bloeit) may find herself in the odd position of riding to support Vos’ bid to usurp her points lead. Arndt, along with American teammates Amber Neben and Evelyn Stevens, fifth last year, will look to mix things up. Emma Johansson (Hitec Products-UCK) had a disappointing Ronde van Drenthe last week, but should be there in the finale as well.
La Flèche Wallonne notable winners
Philémon De Meersman (BEL) – First edition (1936)
Fermo Camellini (ITA) – First non-Belgian win (1948)
Marcel Kint (BEL), Eddy Merckx (BEL), Moreno Argentin (ITA), Davide Rebellin (ITA) – Most wins (3)
Lance Armstrong (USA) – Only American win (1996)
Mario Aerts (BEL) – Most recent Belgian win (2002)
Claude Criquielion (BEL) – Most recent Walloone win (1989)
Ferdi Kubler (1952), Rik Van Steenbergen (1958), Eddy Merckx (1972), Claude Criquielion (1985) and Cadel Evans (2010) – Wins by current world champion