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Flèche Wallonne analysis: rain, pain and Spain

Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez left his rivals for dead on the Mur de Huy to win Flèche Wallonne.

Words by Edward Pickering

Wednesday April 18, 2012

Katusha might have been forgiven for asking their riders to lie low following the announcement of Denis Galimzyanov’s positive test for EPO this week. If the positive, the third for the team in recent years, wasn’t embarrassing enough, the team somehow persuaded Galimzyanov to handwrite a letter of explanation for their website which raised more questions than answers. Such as, why did the team not provide a more supportive anti-doping culture?

But instead of skulking in the shadows, Katusha were the dominant force in Flèche Wallonne, infiltrating attacks, following moves, chasing breaks, and eventually delivering Joaquim Rodriguez into a position to win the race. The Spaniard looked in a class of his own on the Mur de Huy, launching a single devastating attack out of the 20 per cent S-bend halfway up, quickly distancing his rivals, and building enough of a lead to be able to showboat the last 50 metres. Perhaps he’ll submit a race report for the Katusha website, in flamboyant, joined-up script this time, rather than Galimzyanov’s biro scrawl.

The rest of the contenders were equally matched – Michael Albasini of GreenEdge, prominent near the front all the way up the Mur, held his nerve and ground his way over the line to finish second, while BMC’s Philippe Gilbert, the architect of an equally destructive attack to win last year, was third. The Belgian champion struggled at the Tour of Flanders and was left floundering in sixth at Amstel Gold, but seemed to have a little more zip in his legs in Huy. If Liège-Bastoge-Liège were held in a week’s time, you’d bet on him winning. But with four days left to salvage his spring, he’s left it tantalisingly late to hit top form.

***
The race organisers, ASO, perhaps mindful of the fact that Flèche Wallonne has turned into a group ride to the bottom of the Mur de Huy, followed by a slow-motion sprint up in recent years, tried their best to spice up the finale with the insertion of two climbs late in the race. Neither the Côte d’Amay, with 15 kilometres to go, nor the Côte de Villers-le-Bouillet with eight kilometres to go, were particularly difficult, although in the bad weather, the descents looked more dangerous than the climbs.

But the race still followed the now-familiar formula of escape-chase-catch. In horrible conditions – chilly hammering rain and occasional bursts of blinding sunshine, Anthony Roux of FDJ and Dirk Bellemakers of Landbouwkrediet bravely volunteered to spend the day off the front, riding to a five-minute lead. There was a brief interruption to normality when Topsport Vlaanderen’s Sander Armee inexplicably set off in pursuit just as the gap was at its largest. This kind of effort is disparagingly known as a “chasse-patate” – potato hunting. In the end, all he did was give the peloton an extra carrot to chase. Incredibly, as the bunch bore down on him with 45 kilometres to go, and the gap to the leading pair still at two minutes, he visibly made an effort to hold off his pursuers.

Andy Schleck motored off the front with 42 kilometres to ride along with Katusha’s Yuri Trofimov and Astana’s Dimitriy Fofonov. But with Lotto committed to the chase, their escape was short-lived. Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti had a go with Tom Slagter of Rabobank, chased again by Lotto, with a little help from Katusha. Each escape was allowed only enough rope to hang themselves with. The seeming futility of the attacking enterprise was best illustrated by the fact that Roux and Bellemakers, the original escapees, and Visconti and Slagter, were all shut down at the same time, over the Côte d’Amay. The peloton was merciless: with enough teams having an interest in a sprint up the Mur, escape on the terrain offered by Flèche Wallonne was impossible.

Over the penultimate climb, the Côte de Villers-le-Bouillet, there was one more try: in a brave move, Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin attacked, then managed to attack again off the counter-attack of Astana’s Maxim Iglinskiy, taking Sky’s Lars-Petter Nordhaug with him. The duo squeezed out a lead of 13 seconds by the foot of the Mur de Huy. It was nowhere near enough. Once again, the race would come down to a bunch sprint up the Mur.

Behind Hesjedal and Nordhaug, Katusha led the chase. Lotto, working for Jelle Vanendert, were also prominent. Albasini was already working hard near the front for his second place.

On the Mur de Huy, tactics are extremely simple. Riders have one bullet to use, and it has to be carefully aimed. Hesjedal and Nordhaug had already spent theirs: Hesjedal led into the S-bend, and by the time the race exited it, he was an also-ran.

Rodriguez went early. Runner-up last year, he’d had the best seat in the house to watch Gilbert’s winning attack, at about the same point on the climb. This time, it was the Spaniard who soared away. There was no question about the timing of his attack – the others were already at their limit, and he easily distanced them.

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