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70th Flèche Wallonne - PT

Belgium, April 19, 2006

Will CSC splinter the Walloon Arrow?

By Anthony Tan in Charleroi, Belgium

2005 champion Danilo Di Luca will face stiff opposition in this year's Flèche Wallonne
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It's literal translation, 'The Walloon Arrow', doesn't give too much away, but given its location in the Belgian Ardennes, its shorter distance compared to the other Spring Classics and comparatively less climbing, the 70th edition of the men's Flèche Wallonne is likely to be moving in said formation until one third of the way through the race.

At that point, and in the vein of the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday, riders will tackle the first of three ascensions of the dreaded though legendary Mur de Huy. The Mur's statistics need no further explanation: 1.3 kilometres in length, an average gradient of 10% with sections up to 19%, and rising 130 metres within this short distance.

Leaving the Stade du Pays de Charleroi at five past eleven Wednesday morning, the 202 kilometre parcours heads northeast to Eghezee (km 37) then east to Huy after 61.5 kilometres, reaching the summit of Mur de Huy four kilometres later. From there, the peloton, most probably still intact, will complete a small, 30 kilometre clockwise route that sees them crest the Mur de Huy for a second time after 95 kilometres via the Côte de Amay (km 81.5).

The second and final loop around the Belgian Ardennes will be the decisive one; over the next 107 kilometres, the peloton takes on a lumpy, bumpy clockwise parcours with four climbs en route - the Côte de Pailhe (km 132.5), Côte de Hautebisse (km 154.5), Côte de Bohissau (km 173.5) and Côte de Ahin (km 191.0) - before the race culminates on the 'Wall of Huy' for the third and final time.

Since its inception 70 years ago, the race conceived by newspaper Les Sports in 1936, Belgians dominated early editions of La Flèche Wallonne, from inaugural winner Philippe Demeersman right up until André Dierickx's second victory in 1975.

However, in recent times, a smattering of nationalities grace the winner's list: Lance Armstrong became the first American victor in the 1996 edition; Frenchman Laurent Jalabert took his second Flèche a year later then Denmark's Bo Hamburger a year after that; in 1999, triumph in La Flèche was saw Italian Michele Bartoli become the number one rider in the world before countryman Francesco Casagrande followed in his footsteps in the following year's race; two Belgians, Rik Verbrugghe and Mario Aerts, took 'home' victories in 2001 and 2002 respectively; after winning in 2003, Spaniard Igor Astarloa went on to win the world road championship in Hamilton, Canada; while the last two editions have seen Italians earn greatest glory on top of the Mur, with Davide Rebellin's win forming part of a historic triple in 2004 (Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège his two other victories) and Danilo Di Luca doing the double last year after his Amstel accolade the Sunday before.

In 2006, Di Luca and Rebellin are back, riding for Liquigas and Gerolsteiner respectively. Spaniard Jose Luis Arrieta may be AG2R-Prevoyance's only chance, the same for Agritubel with Juan Miguel Mercado. Barloworld will be playing the card of Astarloa, while one would think the Mur de Huy suits Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) to a T. 2001 champ Rik Verbrugghe is here with Cofidis but is a little past his best, so Sylvain Chavanel and Leonardo Bertagnolli will need to pave the way. Another French squad, Credit Agricole, have two guys honing their form in time for the upcoming Giro d'Italia, Pietro Caucchioli and Francesco Bellotti.

Davitamon-Lotto have three - Wim Van Huffel, Chris Horner and Cadel Evans. Discovery don't appear to have depth on paper; probably José Azevedo is their best bet. The orange outfit Euskaltel-Euskadi can look towards Samuel Sanchez and Unai Etxebarria, and with Iban Mayo also, who knows? Philippe Gilbert is Française des Jeux's brightest hope, unless Bradley McGee or Thomas Lövqvist find themselves in the winning break. Gerolsteiner have a strong crew: apart from 'Tintin' Rebellin, the names of Marcus Zberg, Fabian Wegmann Fabian and Georg Totschnig spring to mind. Out of the four Ls, Lampre-Fondital and Landbouwkrediet-Colnago don't look too great, but almost anyone from Liberty Seguros and at least four Liquigas riders could win on their day.

Phonak has plenty of As and Ms in Alexandre Moos, Alex Merckx and Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero. After a disappointing end to Amstel, Bettini would love to notch one on the board for his Quick.Step team, and having served their domestique duties in the same race, Rabo can count on the double Dekkers, Erik and Thomas. Saunier-Duval's Canadian Charles Dionne showed he can handle these climbs when he won the San Fran GP and will be looking to impress his Spanish employer, while team-mate Koldo Gil Perez is not unfamiliar with this type of territory, either.

Australian Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) has previously indicated he wants to have a good Giro, and La Flèche Wallonne is as good a place as any to boost his confidence level. Andriy Grivko, the youngster from Milram and best young rider at the Critérium International, isn't afraid to mix it in with the big boys. Once a big-time boy himself, Frank Vandenbroucke will be flying the flag for Unibet.com.

But in naming all these contenders, we've almost forgotten one team: CSC. And their line up - Basso, Julich, Kroon, Lüttenberger, Voigt, Sorensen, Schleck, Sastre - suggest they just might be able to do it all over again by splintering the Walloon Arrow.

Live coverage

Cyclingnews will be covering the 70th Flèche Wallonne live, beginning at 11:00 local time (CEST)/05:00 EDT (USA East)/02:00 PDT (USA West)/20:00 AEST (Australia East).