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Preview: Looking for a favorite for the Wallonne arrow

After a surprising Amstel Gold Race, picking a clear favorite for a rainy, windy Flèche Wallonne is as difficult as the Mur de Huy is steep

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MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) — Good thing for second chances.

Just about everyone except Enrico Gasparotto left Amstel Gold Race over the weekend with a bad taste in their mouth.

Óscar Freire said he needed the finish line to be 100 meters shorter. Jelle Vanendert still cannot figure out how he lost to the Italian.

Behind Freire’s bold run, the Spanish armada sunk Sunday like a rock against the cold northerly winds. Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez were pedaling squares up the Cauberg. Only Samuel Sánchez rode into the top 10.

Rabobank fell flat on their faces Sunday and will need to pull something out of the hat this week to salvage their pride and chase the Dutch press off their tail.

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Full Ardennes Classics Coverage >>

Of all the protagonists, it was two-time defending champion Philippe Gilbert who left Valkenburg with a smile on his face despite not winning. At least he was in the hunt for a major win for the first time all season, something that only fueled his competitive juices.

All those collective frustrations and unsettled scores will be centered on Wednesday’s La Flèche Wallonne, the midweek semi-classic sandwiched between Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Searching for a favorite

Wednesday’s 76th running of the “arrow of Wallonne” is a race without a clear favorite.

There are, however, some significant names on the “Missing in Action” list. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), winner in 2010, pulled out of the remainder of Ardennes week on Monday with a sinus infection.

Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) — who earned a well-deserved podium Sunday with third after lighting up the spring classics — will take a break until the Tour of California.

Sánchez will also sit out Flèche, opening the door for Euskaltel-Euskadi teammate Igor Antón, who was fourth last year. Ditto that plan for Milan-San Remo champ Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD), who will both cool their jets Wednesday in hopes of blasting off Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The past two years, Gilbert has been the favorite, but it’s been his form that’s been MIA all spring. Freire’s long-distance flier probably scuttled a Gilbert three-peat on Sunday at AGR. The move forced BMC Racing to chase, with Greg van Avermaet burying himself for Gilbert, and leaving the man himself to do his fair share of effort, likely taking the edge out of his legs in the final kick up the Cauberg.

“It gives me confidence for the next races. Yes, I’ll be ready for Liège, even if it’s a different type of race than Amstel,” Gilbert said Sunday. “I was never in panic in the last weeks because I knew my best form would come one day.”

Rodríguez and Valverde are both hoping for warmer weather Wednesday. Unfortunately for “Purito,” forecasters are calling for highs in the low 50s Fahrenheit and a 70-percent chance of rain. That’s still better than what one pundit described as the Amstel “Cold” Race, as a chilling northerly wind blasted the Limburg on Sunday.

The pint-sized Rodríguez is the top favorite behind Gilbert and in fact, he has twice been runner-up atop the Mur de Huy. Valverde, meanwhile, will ride Wednesday, but his real goal is further ahead on Sunday.

“I entered with the front group at the Cauberg, so that’s a good sign. The cold and the distance wore me down and I didn’t have my best legs,” Valverde said. “I will race Wednesday with tranquility. The real goal is Sunday.”

Garmin-Barracuda rode a great race Sunday and probably deserved better than Fabian Wegmann’s eighth place. Wegmann, Thomas Dekker and Ryder Hesjedal all hit the Cauberg in the front group after Alex Howes and Raymond Kreder rode in the day’s main breakaway.

“I think we will be coming up for the rest of the week. It’s a good sign for the first day to have those kinds of numbers up front,” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “I just didn’t have the real snap at the end. This by far is my longest race day. I haven’t gotten close to 200-plus all season. I will keep building this week. We rode really well. We didn’t get the podium but it’s encouraging for the rest of the week. We had two guys in the main break and three guys in the final in the front group.”

The Schleck brothers will be back for RadioShack-Nissan and promise to liven up the race. They are typically on the sharp end of the action, laying down attacks to soften up the bunch before the final run up the Mur de Huy.

“Andy was ok on Sunday because he has been missing some racing. He will be better this week as it goes on,” RadioShack sport director Kim Andersen told VeloNews. “And Frank, he too is getting better. Flèche is a race he can win if he has the legs. Why not?”

It’s Rabobank that will likely have more pressure than anyone to make up for what many saw as a disappointing race Sunday. Bauke Mollema squeaked into the top 10, but the team was roasted in the Monday papers in Holland for riding with less-than-aggressive tactics. Following the wheels rarely leads to victory in the Ardennes.

The route

The Mur de Huy waits like an executioner at the finish line of the year’s top classic for the pack’s puncheurs. The 194km parcours is a good hour shorter in racing time than either the Amstel Gold Race or Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The route starts in Charleroi, a gritty coal-mining town, and pushes west across wind-blown farms 70 kilometers into Huy for the first of three passages up the Mur. The course loops east over five rated climbs that usually see the first major selection on the race before heading through Huy for a second passage up the Mur.

A shorter, 30km circuit hits two more climbs before the final, decisive charge up the Mur.

Breaks almost have no chance of making it all the way up the Mur, though it has happened. The Mur has seen the race’s finale since 1983 and is nothing to laugh at. The climb is just over 1km long, with an average grade of 9.3 percent. One ramp is 26 percent, enough to send the heart-rate monitors twittering off the charts.

Early attackers on the Mur rarely have the legs to grind out the win. Evans won in 2010, while wearing the rainbow jersey, after he finally learned to wait to click into pure attack mode until the final 300 meters of the climb. Gilbert was patient last year until he surged on the upper, lower-gradient reaches of the climb.

Winning Flèche requires a bit of timing, a bit of luck to avoid late-race punctures and crashes, and a whole lot of grit — grinta as the Italians call it — to arrive victorious is cycling’s puncheurs paradise.

Five-star favorites

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha)
Second two years running, “Purito” will be hoping to light it up on the Mur. Rodríguez has won plenty of races on similar battlegrounds, taking stage 6 at Tirreno-Adriatico in similar fashion last month. A winner of two stages and second overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, Rodríguez has the legs to win. He’s hoping he will be thawed out by Wednesday. Teammate Oscar Freire will be a wildcard.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing)
What a difference a year can make. Rewind to 2011, and Gilbert was an unstoppable force, becoming the first rider to sweep all three Ardennes classics and Brabantse Pijl. With his eyes on the worlds and the Olympics, Gilbert has come into the 2012 softer. It’s obviously been too soft, but despite his charge up the Cauberg, where he ran out of gas with 100 meters to go, Gilbert looks to be back just in time for the Ardennes.

Four-star favorites

Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan)
He’s won on the Cauberg and up Alpe d’Huez, but is the Mur a ramp too hard? Schleck was disappointed to miss out at Amstel Gold on his birthday and has his eyes set on a win at the Ardennes before a pre-Tour rest.

Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky)
The Colombian with a kick won his first race with Sky this season and fits the mold of Edvald Boasson Hagen, with an even better uphill kick. Uran is on the young side for a tactical finale like the Mur, but a win would not be shocking.

Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol)
Still peeved he lost Amstel Gold Race, Vanendert will leave Charleroi as a team leader, instead of supporting Gilbert as he did in 2011. He admitted before Amstel Gold that he has much to learn about racing at the sharp end late in the classics, but the Plateau de Beille stage winner at last year’s Tour could be in the running, come the moderate upper reaches near the Huy sports club.

Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Nibali also likes these kinds of finales and he has the kick to win if he’s there. Based on his form over the last month, he will be.

Enrico Gasparotto (Astana)
Honestly, before Sunday’s win, Gasparotto wouldn’t have made the four-star list. But that’s what winning does for a rider. Now, could he pull the AGR-Flèche double?

Three-star favorites

Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan)
Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan)
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda)
Bauke Mollema (Rabobank)
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi)

Two-star favorites

Michael Albasini (GreenEdge)
Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun)
Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank)
Chris-Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank)
Julien El Fares (Team Type 1)

Notable Absentees

Cadel Evans, BMC Racing: Sinus infection
Peter Sagan, Liquigas-Cannondale: Ended classics season Sunday
Samuel Sánchez, Euskaltel-Euskadi: Rest for Liège
Simon Gerrans, GreenEdge: Rest for Liège
Damiano Cunego, Lampre-ISD: Rest for Liège
Timmy Duggan, Liquigas-Cannondale: Not selected
Michele Scarponi, Lampre-ISD: Racing Giro del Trentino
Alexander Vinokourov, Astana: Not selected
Nicolas Roche, Ag2r La Mondiale: Not selected

North Americans

Brent Bookwalter (USA), BMC Racing
Tejay van Garderen (USA), BMC Racing
Christian Meier (Can), GreenEdge
Chris Horner (USA), RadioShack-Nissan
Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Garmin-Barracuda
Alex Howes (USA), Garmin-Barracuda
Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Barracuda

Race Notes

Weather Forecast: Showers and windy, with a high of 54 degrees Fahrenheit and a 70-percent chance of rain.

Women’s Race: Marianne Vos (Stichting Rabo Women) won the women’s edition for the fourth time in 2011 and headlines the starters for Wednesday’s new-look race. Leaving out the mild approach from Charleroi to Huy, the women will tackled the Huy circuits for a race that increases this year from 109km to 123km. Emma Pooley (AA, Nicole Cooke (Faren Honda), Judith Arndt (GreenEdge-AIS) and Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) will try and knock back the Dutch World Cup leader. Also on the startlist are Americans Amber Neben (Specialized), Andrea Dvorak and Janel Holcomb (U.S. National Team), Megan Guarnier and Amanda Miller (Tibco-To The Top), and Canadian Clara Hughes (Specialized).

Preliminary Startlist >>
Course Profile >>
Previous Winners >>