Inside Cycling: Restructured course opens up the Flèche

Restructured course opens up the Flèche

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This year's Flèche Wallonne features a restructured 198km course. | AFP photo

Until the UCI decreed in 1990 that the distance of lesser classics would be limited to 200km, the Flèche Wallonne was regarded as a race almost as tough as its big brother, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. And even though the Flèche didn’t have as long a history (it was founded in 1936, 42 years after L-B-L), a victory in either race was regarded as one of the pinnacles in a pro cyclist’s career.

In fact, for 15 years (from 1950 to 1964), the two races were held on the same weekend, using many of the same climbs and both finishing in Liège. It was during this period that Tour de France champions Fausto Coppi and Ferdi Kubler won the Flèche — with Switzerland’s Kubler winning both races in consecutive years (1951 and 1952), while Belgium’s Stan Ockers won both races of the so-called Weekend Ardennais in 1955.

In more recent times, the Flèche-Liège double (though not on the same weekend) has been achieved four more times — by Belgium’s Eddy Merckx (1972), Italy’s Moreno Argentin (1991) and Davide Rebellin (2004), and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde (2006).

Those two wins by the Spaniard came just a month before the Operación Puerto doping scandal blew the top off Spanish sports (people forget that only a quarter of the athletes mentioned in the police probe were cyclists). It’s a scandal that still haunts Valverde.

Then the leader of the maligned Kelme team, Valverde was one of 34 cyclists named in the Puerto report and as a result he is currently under a two-year suspension from racing in Italy — the DNA identified in a blood sample taken by the Italian anti-doping authority in July 2008 coincided with the DNA in a bag of blood bag seized by the Spanish police during their Puerto investigations.

Dependent on an upcoming ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Valverde’s racing ban may soon be extended worldwide. In the meantime, he remains a chief contender for this week’s two Ardennes classics, after missing last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race because of travel problems caused by the Icelandic volcano eruption.

Important course change
Valverde and the other 196 racers due to line up in Charleroi Wednesday for the 73rd running of the Flèche Wallonne face a restructured 198km course that puts less emphasis on the hilltop finish at Huy. Race organizer ASO (which also runs the Tour de France) was unhappy that the past five editions of the race have really come down to a sprint up the Mur de Huy — even though a 1.3km climb averaging 9.3 percent, with a couple of pitches flirting with 20 percent, is no ordinary sprint.

But it has been this demanding finale that has blocked the course, with the favorites not keen to blow their chances with long-range attacks. That wasn’t the case, for instance, when Lance Armstrong won the Flèche in 1996 (six months before he was diagnosed with cancer). He was part of a breakaway group that formed over the top of the Mur’s second crossing (some two hours before the third and final haul up the Mur); the Texan then attacked out of the break with Frenchman Didier Rous and finished the race alone.

ASO has decided that after this year’s flat 65km approach from Charleroi to Huy for the first climb up the Mur, the riders will now face the former final loop of 100km (and six climbs), and end with the 30km circuit that previously came earlier.

So the final 40km of the Flèche now contains
• The difficult Côte d’Ahin, a stair-step climb of 2.3km averaging 6.5 percent, some 10km before Huy
• The second ascent of the Mur de Huy, with 30km to go
• The newly introduced Côte d’Ereffe (2.1km at 5.9 percent) that comes with 11km to go and is followed by a steep plunge into the valley before the town of Huy
• The climb to the Mur de Huy finish

What this means is that the later second Mur climb opens up a blocked race because riders will be less hesitant about using it to launch a breakaway with only 30km to go instead of 100km — especially as early breaks are more likely to have already foundered.

The favorites
So which riders could potentially exploit the restructured course?

Valverde, now the co-leader of Caisse d’Épargne with Luis Leon Sanchez, is an obvious favorite; but even though he is on good form after winning two stages and placing second overall to Chris Horner at last week’s Tour of the Basque Country, Valverde likes to wait until he can use his famous finishing kick.

Last year’s Flèche runner-up Andy Schleck (beaten by the now-suspended Rebellin) could well split the lead group on the penultimate Mur climb, a tactic that would also favor his elder brother Fränk. But the two Saxo Bank stars say they’re more focused on Sunday’s much longer Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in which Andy is the defending champion.

Italy’s enigmatic Damiano Cunego has placed third at the past two editions of the Flèche, and the Lampre-Farnese leader showed on Sunday that his form is on the upswing. He’s an aggressive rider, and he should figure in the potentially winning break.

The man that everyone will be watching is two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador of Team Astana, but he hasn’t ridden the Ardennes classics since he started focusing on the grand tours three years ago, and the specialists will want to get rid of him before the final dash up the Mur.

Being 60km shorter than Sunday’s Amstel, when several riders suffered with the extra distance, the Flèche offers those men a second chance. Among these are BMC Racing’s world champ Cadel Evans, who cramped in the Dutch race; Team Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, who faded at the Amstel because of sickness; Team RadioShack’s Horner, though he traditionally does better at Liège than the Flèche; and Team Sky’s Simon Gerrans, whose best form has yet to arrive.

Among the outsiders are Rabobank’s Robert Gesink, who knows he has to attack early to stand a chance of winning; the Amstel runner-up Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions, who also looks better suited to Liège; and Igor Anton of Euskaltel-Euskadi, who beat Contador in a difficult summit finish at last week’s Vuelta a Castilla y León.

Another who could surprise is Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck, who worked tirelessly Sunday to help teammate Philippe Gilbert win the Amstel Gold Race, and will probably be doing the same this coming Sunday in Liège. Gilbert himself, who grew up on the course of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, wants that to be the pinnacle of his season.

But then, again, Gilbert is on such transcendent form that he will be difficult to shake him off in the Flèche’s tough new finale, and his declared intention of becoming the world’s No. 1-ranked racer (he’s No. 3 right now) just might give him the boost to go for the double — just like his countrymen Merckx and Ockers in previous decades.