It’s almost Fleche Wallone day, folks. The Ardennes Classics Week’s Hump Day offering features a race with a wall for a finish and no clear favorite.
After Amstel Gold Race this past Sunday, Enrico Gasparatto of Astana is the default lead man for the race. Strong showings from Philipe Gilbert, Oscar Friere and a host of others came up short, though the Mur de Huy is a much better fit for snappy, quick climbers than the Cauberg three days ago.
Gilbert’s twelfth place was a huge sigh of relief for the Belgian champion, and without a doubt an encouraging sign for his BMC team. They suffered a bit of a setback Sunday when Cadel Evans withdrew from Amstel due to illness, and the 2011 Tour champion will sit out the remainder of the Ardennes campaign. Gilbert will rely heavily on Greg Van Avermaet, the same rider that buried himself near the end of Amstel to try and pull back Friere from 7km out. He came up short, forcing Gilbert to pull the rest of the field up the Cauberg, passing Friere but delivering the rest of the favorites to the line in the process. Evans is a former Fleche winner, but will skip in order to heal before the Tour of Romandie.
The disappointing finish of Joaquim Rodriguez at Amstel is no huge surprise. Even after his 24th placing Sunday, he has to be excited about his chances midweek, as no race so perfectly suits his style of racing as Fleche Wallonne. The little climber has an explosive punch on the steepest gradients, and they just don’t come much steeper the the Mur de Huy. The Cauberg, by comparison, is much shallower, and much wider. Positioning at Fleche Wallone is crucial for riders hoping for a chance, as the road is about as wide as a golf cart path and lined with crazed fans hardly contained by the barriers.
With Andy Schleck well off the pace, right alongside Chris Horner, RadioShack-Nissan’s big hopes hinge on Frank Schleck, who was happy with his 12th place Sunday. He’s rode the Fleche Wallonne enough to understand how to gauge his efforts, and if Andy rides in support again, as he did Sunday, Frank will have plenty of help if a break stays away late into the race. With no clear favorite, however, and with Astana unlikely to assume responsibility for chasing, the big test may come with a frantic catch in the final kilometers, much like 2011. Frank will need a somewhat whittled pack in order to take on the likes of Gilbert and Rodriguez.
Here’s last year’s edition, just to whet your whistle. They hit the Mur proper at just about 8 minutes into the video, for those rushed for time.