No one had an answer for the blistering acceleration from Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) on the Mur de Huy on Wednesday, not even the combined presence of five Spanish climbers who featured in the Flèche Wallonne finale. While Albert Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) isn't considered to be an expert in the one-day races, men like Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) surely hoped to out-duel the Belgian on the steep finishing ascent.
"I would have liked to win," said Rodríguez, who finished in second place, three seconds behind Gilbert. "This course suits me much more than Amstel Gold Race's one, but it was almost impossible to win against Gilbert.
"Honestly, I didn't expect an attack from him so early [on the Mur de Huy], such an action was more expected from us, while theoretically he would have to wait for a final sprint in order to win this race. Gilbert's in such shape he did what he wanted to and he won easily.
"However, I'm optimistic about Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Not a lot of riders were able to win all three competitions comprising the Ardennes Triple. For example, Danilo Di Luca, in 2005, easily won Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, but then he wasn't at his best at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and he lost it. Gilbert is the favorite, that's for sure, but I proved I'm in good shape, too, and I'll try to win on Sunday."
Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) entered the 75th edition of Flèche Wallonne as an outsider and the Spaniard didn't disappoint as he finished in third place behind top favourites Philippe Gilbert and Joaquím Rodríguez.
Though he has yet to win Flèche Wallonne it's clear that the finish on top of the Mur de Huy suits the 33-year-old Spaniard as he has twice finished fourth and once as runner-up.
"That second place was behind Valverde and just ahead of Kroon," Sánchez told Cyclingnews with a smile on the start line in Charleroi, referring to the outcome of the race in 2006.
Sánchez explained that the Amstel Gold Race didn't suit him and thus his 56th place finish there on Sunday shouldn't be taken too seriously. "I don't know why but I never go well on that course. I much rather race Flèche or Liège," Sanchez said.
A few hours later Sánchez was recovering from the effort which yielded a podium finish atop the Mur de Huy. The Spaniard finished third, five seconds down, but wasn't able to challenge race winner Philippe Gilbert.
"He was very strong. It was impossible for me to keep up with him," Sánchez said.
At the foot of the finishing climb Sánchez was accompanied by teammate Igor Anton, but both riders were riding in the third row while Gilbert moved to the front right away. When asked whether he wasn't too far back at the bottom of the climb the Olympic champion said "yes," before releasing a huge sigh. "But Gilbert attacked from 250 metres out and that made it impossible to get back to him."
Clearly Gilbert both surprised and overpowered the opposition on the Mur de Huy. "I hope to do better in Liège. It's different and more difficult, but if Gilbert continues like this it'll be impossible," Sánchez told Cyclingnews.
Sánchez has never cracked the Liège-Bastogne-Liège podium, but as he has seldom finished outside the top-15 it's clear that 'Samu' - together with 'Purito' Rodríguez - are contenders for the win next Sunday in the last of the Spring Classics.