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11th Women's Flèche Wallonne - CDM
Belgium, April 23, 2008
By Ben Atkins
The Women's World Cup rolls on this week, back into Belgium for the eleventh edition of the Flèche Wallonne for Women. Like the Ronde Van Vlaanderen earlier in the month, la Flèche piggy-backs the equivalent men's race, using the same infrastructure and finish line as the more established event. The 103.5km course will cover the exact route of the final loop of the men's race. Starting in Huy, it takes in eight categorised climbs to finish at the top of the last of them: the legendary Mur de Huy.
If everything goes to plan, we should finally be treated to the first showdown this season between three-time winner Nicole Cooke (Great Britain) and last year's victor, Dutch wunderkind Marianne Vos (DSB Bank). This race – like the men's equivalent – has become a mano a mano battle to see who can get up the legendary slopes of the Mur de Huy the quickest, and these two were head and shoulders above virtually everyone else 12 months ago.
It seemed for a while as though Cooke – the British champion riding for her national squad this week – was invincible on the up-to 25% gradients, but then World champion Vos shocked the world and proved that there was more to her game than just a phenomenal sprint. She bided her time as Cooke piled on the pressure and sped past her in the closing metres to take a victory on the famous climb.
Cooke's Great Britain team will be bolstered this week with newly signed team-mate Sharon Laws. Emma Pooley's Specialized Designs for Women team is not invited to this race and so the Trofeo Alfredo Binda winner joins Cooke and Laws in what should be a preview of the GB team for Beijing. Pooley's inclusion is the main reason that the team will be riding in red, white and blue, instead of the orange and black of Halfords-Bikehut.
Aside from this, the race ought to feature another battle between the two big in-form teams of this season: Cervelo-Lifeforce and High Road. American Kristin Armstrong (Cervélo-Lifeforce) finished in fifth place last year and is showing some great form with her victory at the Novilon Eurocup Ronde van Drenthe last week. She will also be ultra-determined after being defeated on the line by High Road's Judith Arndt at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen earlier in the month.
Arndt herself is a perennial podium finisher here, as is her High Road team-mate Oenone Wood. The two of them working together in the final stages could prove devastating, and both are in fantastic form this month. The German-registered international super-team will – as usual – be totally united behind its two captains.
As well as Cooke, the other three-time winner Fabiana Luperini (Menikini-Selle Italia) will take the start with the aim of adding a fourth title. However, the first of these three victories was 10 years ago in first edition – and the last was in 2002 – and while she's featured in the top ten many times since that last victory she's never really threatened the podium.
Behind the podium of Vos, Cooke and Arndt last year was Team Flexpoint's former US champion Amber Neben. After showing good form already this season, the American will be looking to go at least one better and get her foot on the podium, but she could go all the way.
The Team Bigla duo of Nicole Brändli and Noemi Cantele has rarely been absent from the front of any of the major races this season. Both are coming into this race with good form and both have finished strongly here in the past. If the main favourites slip up at all, either of these two could get away and cause a small shock.
Equipe Nürnberger Versicherung – the other German super-team – have a number of riders who can do well; not least Trixi Worrack and Edita Pucinskaite, who were third and sixth respectively in 2006; and Eva Lutz who was tenth last year. The team does have a further aim in the race though: the defence of Suzanne De Goede's lead in the World Cup overall.
De Goede herself has no great history in this race, as she's much more of a sprinter than climber. Last year she was the second last to finish (but did finish, where eighty riders did not) but will have been working hard for her then T-Mobile team and Judith Arndt. Ironically, it is Arndt herself that now poses one of the most serious threats to her lead, along with Vos and Pooley, who lurk just behind in the standings after four rounds.
One will also be curious about German Hanka Kupfernagel, who will be starting her road racing season on Wednesday. After winning the 'cross World Championships in Italy, Kupfernagel did a training camp in Soth Africa and is now ready to tackle the road season, with the ultimate goal, the Olympics, looming in the background.