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Photo ©: Bettini

71st Flèche Wallonne - PT

Belgium, April 25, 2007

Battle of the Mur

By Gregor Brown in Charleroi

Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne)
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
(Click for larger image)

The Flèche Wallonne conjures up one thought, the feared ascent of the Mur de Huy. The Ardennes Classic has been around since 1936 but is not as renowned as Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège; Nonetheless it is a race that packs a punch in its 202.5 kilometres of race.

The 71st edition of the 'Wallonne Arrow' will be fought out this Wednesday, when the riders will cover the rolling terrain between Charleroi and Huy. The parcours kick into action in the latter half with eleven sharp and nasty ascents. The most feared ascent is the Mur de Huy, or the 'Wall of Huy.' Similar to the Cauberg in Amstel Gold, the riders will cover this 1300 metre beast three times, the final being the finish.

Typically the race comes to a slow-motion battle on final ascent of the Mur de Huy, which has a 9.3% average gradient and some sections of 14, 19 and 25%. The côtes (or 'hills' in this French-speaking part of Belgium) of Pailhe (km 115), Peu d'Eau (137), Haut-Bois (142), Thon (152.5), Bonneville (160.5), Bohissau (172.5) and Ahin (188) will help form the select group in the final 105-kilometre loop before the third time up the Mur.

The climbs:
Km 65.5, Mur de Huy (1.3 km, 9.3%)
Km 84.5, Côte d'Ereffe (2.2 km, 5.6%)
Km 97.5, Mur de Huy (1.3 km, 9.3%)
Km 115, Côte de Pailhe (1.0 km, 4.3%)
Km 137, Côte de Peu d'Eau (2.5 km, 4.2%)
Km 142.5, Côte de Haut-Bois (1.4 km, 5.4%)
Km 152.5, Côte de Thon (1.2 km, 7.1%)
Km 160.5, Côte de Bonneville (1.1 km, 7.9%)
Km 172.5, Côte de Bohissau (3.4 km, 4%)
Km 188, Côte de Ahin (2.5 km, 6%)
Km 202.5, Mur de Huy (1.3 km, 9.3%)

German Schumi
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
(Click for larger image)

Belgians dominated early editions of La Flèche Wallonne since its inception 70 years ago, the race conceived by newspaper Les Sports, from the 1936 winner Philippe Demeersman right up until win number two by André Dierickx's in 1975. However, recent winners have come from further afield. Italian Moreno Argentin took the prise three times, Frenchman Laurent Jalabert twice and one time winners include American Lance Armstrong, Spaniard Igor Astarloa and Italians Davide Rebellin and Danilo Di Luca.

Spaniard Alejandro Valverde won last year's edition by moving on the penultimate côte, the Côte de Ahin, with a group that contained Di Luca, Fränk Schleck, Karsten Kroon and Samuel Sánchez. He then put in the final blow to claim top honours on the Mur, finishing ahead of Sánchez and Kroon. His win was no fluke; he went on to win the Liège-Bastogne-Liège four days later. This year he is amongst the favourites, as evident from his sixth place in last Sunday's Amstel Gold. He will rely on strong support from Joaquím Rodríguez in the closing kilometres.

Valverde will come under fire to repeat his 2006 victory. Astana's Matthias Kessler was impressive in Amstel Gold, where he finished fourth. The German will have the backing of Alexander Vinokourov, who is building for the Tour but is very capable of winning this Classic.

Last year's winner
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

Gerolsteiner will be led by Amstel Gold top two finishers, Stefan Schumacher and Davide Rebellin. Both riders are strong and if they find themselves in a move like last Sunday, with teammate Fabian Wegmann, then the odds should play in their favour. 35 year-old 'Tin-Tin' Rebellin won Flèche in 2004, his second stop in the Ardennes hat trick, but could use his talents for the good of 25 year-old Schumi.

CSC will be out for revenge. Jens Voigt and Schleck gave a fabulous showing in Amstel but neither came up with the goods. To his credit, Luxemburger Schleck was involved in a nasty looking crash (but amazingly came back to finish in tenth). Kroon will also be a key member in CSC arsenal.

After an impressive performance on Sunday, 'The Killer,' Di Luca, should be back in the business end of this race. The Mur suits his explosive finish and a second win in Flèche would bode well for a run at a first in Liège four days later. He will come under fire from compatriots Paolo Bettini and Riccardo Riccò.

Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas)
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

Both of the Italians were in the mix in Amstel. World Champion Bettini has never won Flèche in his 11-year career, which includes two victories of the Liège. Meanwhile, 23 year-old Riccò will make his first appearance in Flèche. What he lacks in experience is made up for in sheer guts; he has the gumption to lay it on the line in the finale. If he can save something for the third ascent of the Huy then he could stake claim to his first Classic.

Other favourites to watch will be Paris-Nice winner Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel), Sánchez, Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux), Matteo Bono (Lampre-Fondital), Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), Bettini's teammate Carlos Barredo (Quickstep-Innergetic), Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) and Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems).

This Wednesday Cyclingnews will be covering the 71st Flèche Wallonne live. Coverage begins around 13:00 local European time (CEST)/ 7:00 (USA East)/ 22:00 Australia (EST) - also on WAP-enabled mobile devices at http://live.cyclingnews.com/wap/