66th Flèche Wallonne - HC
Belgium, April 17, 2002
Complete Live Report
Start time: 11.15 CEST
Estimated finish time: 16.20 CEST
Welcome to Cyclingnews.com's coverage of the 66th running of the Flèche Wallonne, the first half of what used to be called the Ardennes weekend. The race starts in the industrial city of Charleroi (the sombre city on the Sambre, someone once said) and heads across the flattish region of the Hesbaye, north of the Sambre and Meuse rivers and notable mainly for having more old battlefields per square kilometre than anywhere else on earth, before dropping into the Meuse valley at Huy with for the first of three climbs of the 23% Rue des Chapelles, AKA the Mur de Huy. This is followed by two big loops through the Condroz, the foothills of the Ardennes proper, with a series of tough little climbs up to the exposed farmland of the high plateau, with the finish at the top of the Mur on the third climb. Last year's winner Rik Verbrugghe is thinking more about next Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège than today, but is here today as well, wearing number 1 in a field of 192 riders.
Also run today is the fourth round of the Women's world cup, which follows the 93 km final circuit of the men's event, finishing around 15.00 CET.
12:23 CEST 25 km/173 km to go
The weather conditions today are rather more pleasant than had been expected after several cold days in Belgium; the sun is more or less breaking through, and there is a gentle breeze from the south-west which is helping the riders along on the first stretch.
At St.-Denis (25 km) the peloton were moving fairly briskly, with a bit of cut and thrust going on at the front. The Mercatone Uno team riding en bloc towards the back of the field bring back memories of their protection for Marco Pantani in earlier Tours de France.
13:26 CEST 70 km/128 km to go
After the long run-in from Charleroi, the bunch took the first climb of the Mur de Huy together, led up by 2000 winner Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo).
This morning Cyclingnews spoke to Serge Baguet, a Lotto team-mate of last year's winner Rik Verbrugghe. "I'm feeling good now. Last Friday I rode the GP Pino Cerami [where he came third] and just training since then, not much racing." What do you think of the course? "It suits me. I have to have a little bit of luck, too, maybe get in a good breakaway; I'll see what happens." How is Rik going? "Looking good". Verbrugghe himself said that he was going "almost as well as last year. People have been saying that my 16th place in the Tour of the Basque Country means I'm not going well enough, but last year I was 15th and the 16th placed rider was Oskar Camenzind, who won Liège-Bastogne-Liège!".
13:52 CEST 105 km/93 km to go
On the short loop between the first and second climbs of the Mur de Huy the Fassa Bortolo team have taken matters in hand and it looks as though Casagrande is the rider to beat today. However a break of three has gone away: Jens Heppner (Telekom), Walter Beneteau (Bonjour) and Alex Zülle (Team Coast), who told us this morning that he was feeling "Not bad. The form this year has been very, very good, but then my last race (the Basque Tour) was less than perfect - the weather was bad, with rain and snow. I'm hoping now for today and perhaps better in Liège-Bastogne-Liège."
14:09 CEST 120 km/78 km to go
At the foot of the Côte de France, the sixth of the ten listed climbs (although the rest of the course can reasonably be described as fairly lumpy), the trio have a useful lead of 2.40 over a bunch led by the Fassa Bortolo team, with Rabobank's Levi Leipheimer trying to bridge the gap, half a minute ahead of the bunch.
14:21 CEST 123 km/75 km to go
Through the narrow twisty lanes through the villages of Outrelouxhe and Strée a group of ten riders forms around Leipheimer:
Paolo Bettini (Ita) Mapei - Quick Step
Inigo Cuesta (Spa) Cofidis, le credit par téléphone
Levy Leipheimer (USA) Rabobank
Markus Zberg (Sui) Rabobank
Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Ibanesto.Com
Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Bonjour
Steve Zampieri (Sui) Tacconi Sport
Andrea Peron (Ita) Team CSC Tiscali
Gianni Faresin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
Alberto Martinez (Spa) Euskatel - Euskadi
They have closed the break down to 2.15, but the peloton are hot on the heels of such a dangerous-looking move.
14:35 CEST 134 km/64 km to go
The Bettini group is fairly quickly caught. On the long straight roads coming up to Modave, Marcel Strauss (Gerolsteiner) and Tyler Hamilton (CSC-Tiscali) are having a go at getting across to Zülle, Heppner and Bénéteau. Tyler was another victim of our roving reporters this morning. He was looking cheerful and relaxed, but told us "It's hard to say that I'll be a big factor in a race like today because I haven't raced that much; I think I've had fourteen or fifteen days which isn't too many."
14:41 CEST 142 km/56 km to go
On the Côte de Pailhe, a long main road drag taken on the big ring, the three leaders are clearly moving lower than the bunch, which is lined out with small groups continually going clear and being recaptured, btu no real organisation. The break now has only 58 seconds on Hamilton and Strauss, with the bunch at 1.14.
The steepest part of the climb is nonetheless too much for Zülle, who is dropped by Heppner and Beneteau.
The women's race has been won for the third time by Fabiana Luperini.
14:56 CEST 151 km/47 km to go
Descending from Havelange there is still no real organisation at the front of the bunch; Rabobank and Fassa Bortolo vests are prominent and there is a sort of nodding dog effect as domestiques come up to the front and then look around for their team leaders. We are still on fairly wide, exposed and rolling roads at this stage.
No sooner written, than the Saeco team take up position at the front of the bunch, the red train once a familiar sight in flatter events; however they are chasing a group of nine that has gone clear with Bartoli and Boogerd. The train does its job, though and they are reabsorbed before they turn off the main road into the lanes towards the Côte de Coutisse, where Heppner and Bénéteau are finally caught.
15:10 CEST 160 km/38 km to go
Approaching the Côte de Coutisse, Laurent Lefèvre (Jean Delatour) attacks solo
and takes a twenty second lead at the foot of the climb. On the climb itself,
Paolo Bettini (Mapei) attacks and a small but interesting group goes clear,
but they fail to work together. From that group the World Champion's vest of
Oscar Freire breaks clear with Fassa Bortolo's Gorazd Stangelj on his wheel,
and they join Lefèvre as the race plunges down to Andenne on the banks of the
15:18 CEST 164 km/34 km to go
The trio are caught on the descent, which is followed by an attack by Alessandro Spezialetti (Saeco), who is joined by Jorg Jaksche (ONCE) - one of the riders in the winning break last year. Behind them the bunch negotiates the twisting streets of the little market town and turns out on the main road along the Meuse lined out, 13 seconds behind - the sprint for the foot of the Côte de Bohissau, often decisive.
On the climb Gerolsteiner's Daniele Contrini leads the bunch up in pursuit of the two breakaways; the first move comes from a Tacconi rider, and then Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo, 2nd last year) who is really making some legs hurt as the bunch strings out behind him; they catch the two leaders and Bartoli promptly attacks in turn.
Bartoli is caught, but over the crest of the climb and back onto the draggy
roads of the plateau, Michael Boogerd tries his hand at attacking and there
is no immediate chase, allowing him to take a few yards lead.
At the back of the race, the riders dropped on the Bohissau include Rik Verbrugghe
and Marco Pantani. Danilo Di Luca is also in a bit of trouble.
Boogerd is joined by Farazijn and Frigo and then a group of 20 riders. We spoke
to Boogerd this morning: "So far, so good. It's good weather. I did well in
Pays Basque also - I think my form is alright so I will do my best today." On
the Basque Tour: "It was a hard race - a lot of bad weather. But we survived
it. It was very cold but we had a good preparation for this race." Is your goal
to win this race or Liège-Bastogne-Liège? "I hope Sunday, but it's not bad to
win here either."
15:36 CEST 175 km/23 km to go
The course takes a long gradual descent through the lanes back down to the Meuse valley. Domo's Dave Bruylandts attacks, but soon gets the company of Eddy Mazzoleni (Tacconi) who is working for Frigo, and it comes to nothing.
Another break goes on the lower part of the descent: this time it's Basso again,
accompanied by Flecha (Banesto) and Konecny (Domo); they turn out onto the valley
road with a narrow lead. But it is not enough. The suspension bridge at Ben-Ahin
comes into sight, we are winding up for the penultimate climb now.
15:43 CEST 186 km/12 km to go
Yet another small group attacks early on the Côte de Ben-Ahin but are caught at half distance, while at the back Bartoli appears to be in difficulty.
Boogerd has another go, but this time there are a line of white jerseys on his
wheel along with Bruylandts. Then it is Casagrande's turn, but he two does not
open a gap.
It looks as though we will be getting a larger group than we are used to at the foot of the Mur de Huy this time, although there are attacks going left and right.
15:53 CEST 190 km/8 km to go
Axel Merckx (Domo) attacks on a twisting section of the descent and three riders
come up to him: Mario Aerts (Lotto), Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel) and José Azevedo
(ONCE). Behind them the chase is not organised and a gap opens, but Michele
Bartoli is clearly descending better than he climbs and crosses the gap along
with his former teammate Andrea Noè (Mapei).
15:56 CEST 195 km/3 km to go
The six are 26 seconds clear on the outskirts of Huy - the winner will be one of them.
15:57 CEST 196 km/2 km to go
Merckx attacks alone as they come to the foot of the road that turns up to the Mur.
15:58 CEST 197 km/1 km to go
All together again under the flamme rouge, Aerts in the lead.
Azevedo tries to accelerate but slips back as they turn up Rue des Chapelles; Aerts keeps it steady and winds it up round the 23% hairpin.
Only Etxebarria can catch Aerts now as he stretches it on the steepest section.
He doesn't - Mario Aerts takes Lotto's second Flèche in a row ahead of the Venezuelan Basque to become the first Flemish rider to win this race since the finish moved to the Mur de Huy.
Dario Frigo leads in the remainder of the front group, hot on the heels of a resigned Axel Merckx.
Result (197 km)
1. Mario Aerts (Bel) Lotto - Adecco 4.45.19 (41.64 kph)
2. Unai Etxebarria (Ven) Euskatel - Euskadi
3. Michele Bartoli (Ita) Fassa Bortolo
4. Andrea Noè (Ita) Mapei - Quickstep
5. José Azevedo (Por) ONCE - Eroski
6. Axel Merckx (Bel) Domo - Farm Frites
7. Dario Frigo (Ita) Tacconi Sport
8. David Etxebarria (Spa) Euskatel - Euskadi
9. Michaël Boogerd (Ned) Rabobank
10. Francesco Casagrande (Ita) Fassa Bortolo