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Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas)
By Hedwig Kröner in Huy Winner of the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne classics as well as the...
By Hedwig Kröner in Huy
Winner of the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne classics as well as the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, Danilo Di Luca, is experiencing a similar success as Davide Rebellin did last year, when he achieved his unequalled triple by also winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège. For Rebellin, it was a "time of redemption", that made him forget about his past difficulties and gave him back his confidence. Although Di Luca is not quite there yet - and even if it might be even more unlikely to accomplish a triple like his countryman in 2004 - Di Luca has also come a long way for these victories.
Asked what finally made the difference between last year, where he placed fourth at Amstel and second at Flèche, Di Luca replied after the race, "The difference is in my head, and in the people that surround me. Now I feel sure about my abilities as a champion, and I have a great team around me that makes it possible. It's in the combination."
At the foot of the Mur de Huy for the last time, Di Luca said he was "just thinking about Rebellin all the time. I didn't want to make the same mistake as last year, when I didn't watch him enough. As for the others, I waited for their moves, and responded. My teammates Pellizotti, Calcagni and Ljungqvist got me to the foot in a very good position right in front, and that's when my directeur sportif told me to go a 100 percent."
Of course, expectations are now high for Di Luca at next Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège. "Today, winning the race was already difficult enough," Di Luca said. "It was even harder than at Amstel, as I was being watched more. But Sunday will be the hardest, not only because I will be a favourite, but also because of the last climb."
One thing is certain: Di Luca will be the man to beat in his current form and frame of mind. "I have been waiting for this for three years," he said, very happy to have finally reached a peak in his career. And Di Luca doesn't see himself focus on one-day races only now that he has made this breakthrough - he still focuses on stage races as has been his objective before. "I still think it's possible for me to win a Grand Tour sometime in the future," the true Italian concluded.
Nicole Cooke (Safi-Pasta Zara-Manhattan) repeated her 2003 victory in the women's Flèche Wallonne by outsprinting Oenone Wood and Judith Arndt (Nürnberger) to the top of the Mur de Huy. As she did in 2003, Cooke collapsed for several minutes after the finish, but recovered to describe the final kilometre in detail:
"We came with about thirty riders to the bottom of the climb. At that moment, even though I didn't want to make my final move I think it was best to be at the front where I wouldn't get closed in or get pushed to the back. So I took the front line with Melchers, Wood and another rider, even though we weren't going flat out. But then Melchers really started her effort and I just stayed behind, knowing that there was no need to go too soon . But as we got to the two hairpins I started to go flat out, and afterwards Oenone Wood came past me, then I went past her, she came back past me.[laughs] But then, with the last 200 metres to go, I made my move and gave it absolutely everything to the line."
Thanks to her second place, Oenone Wood is the leader of the World Cup again with 165 points, nine more than Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel (Buitenpoort) and 40 more than Cooke.