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73rd La Flèche Wallonne - HIS
Belgium, April 22, 2009
By Gregor Brown
'Mid-week mayhem on the Mur de Huy' best sums up the Flèche Wallonne one-day race. Slotted between the Sundays of Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it's a flat-out affair that tests the resolve of those who fancy their chances as Ardennes men.
A large reason for this is the decisive Mur de Huy ascent. Powered over three times during the 195.5-kilometre parcours through the Walloon region of Belgium, the 'wall' in the city of Huy is only 1300-metres long but packs its punch thanks to an average gradient of 9.3-percent that maxes at 25 percent.
The shorter distance and mid-week status doesn't mean that Flèche Wallonne loses any prestige thanks to past winners that include the likes of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong.
Kim Kirchen added his name to that list last year. He ruled the feared climb last year thanks to an attack in the last 175 metres of the race in wet, cold conditions and proved that he's a man to watch in the big races of late April.
The men he beat to the top step of the podium in 2008 - Italian Damiano Cunego and Australian Cadel Evans - are in better shape as contenders this time round, however. Kirchen's crash during stage four of the Tour of California severely disrupted his preparations for the Spring and for some time it was doubtful he would be riding in the Ardennes at all.
Mantle likely to be passed on
Kirchen will indeed be defending his crown this year, but he certainly doesn't carry the tag of favourite. While the aforementioned Evans and Cunego head into the 73rd edition of the race at short-money odds, there are more than a few other contenders worth getting excited about.
Alejandro Valverde, winner of the 2006 Flèche, will lead Caisse d'Epargne's two-pronged attack with trusted first lieutenant Joaquím Rodríguez. Expect Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) to challenge his countryman for the win, given that he has been on song thus far in 2009.
Philippe Gilbert will fight on home Walloon turf for a much-needed big win for the Silence-Lotto team. Evans will support him, and rightly so since he led home the favourites behind the three-man escape in Sunday's Amstel race.
Double Flèche Wallonne champion Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni-Androni) is nearing top form after a case of the flu set back his training last week. Teammate Michele Scarponi will aid in his endeavours to make it a triple triumph for the Italian veteran.
Given the proximity of Flèche Wallonne to the Amstel Gold Race, last Sunday's big performers - Serguei Ivanov (Katusha) and Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) - shouldn't be ruled out. Saxo Bank beefs up the lineup with the likes of Andy Schleck and Alexandr Kolobnev, who are proven tough customers.
Mur and more
The Mur de Huy is the key point of the race. Featured three times, it's often the decisive factor heading into the finish, although there are other climbs that prolong the riders' suffering on their journey from Charleroi to Huy.
On the small closing circuit, after the first climb up Huy, the riders encounter the Côte d'Ereffe, and the race really kicks into gear when the field passes Huy for the second time. Six Côtes are spread along the second circuit, while the penultimate of the day, Côte de Ahin, often sees them anticipating the Huy battle with early attacks.
km 67, Mur de Huy - First passage (1.3km @ 9.3%) km 85.5, Côte d'Ereffe (2.1km @ 5.9%) km 96.5, Mur de Huy - Second passage (1.3km @ 9.3%) km 136, Côte de Peu d'Eau (2.7km @ 3.9%) km 141.5 Côte de Haut-Bois (1.6km @ 4.8%) km 151, Côte de Thon (1km @ 8.5%) km 159, Côte de Bonneville (0.9km @ 9.7%) km 170.5, Côte de Bohisseau (1.3km @ 7.6%) km 173.5, Côte de Bousalle (1.7km @ 4.9%) km 184.5, Côte de Ahin (2.3km @6.5%) km 195.5, Mur de Huy (Finish) (1.3km @ 9.3% plus 900m @ 11.6%)