69th Flèche Wallonne - PT
Belgium, April 20, 2005
Danilo di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) followed in the footsteps of his Italian colleague Davide Rebellin today when he took his second victory after Amstel Gold race, just like Rebellin last year. Di Luca was simply the strongest of the main contenders, all hitting the famous "Mur de Huy" together and pounding up the slopes of this final climb for an impressive slo-mo sprint.
The confidence Di Luca gained through his previous victory just a couple of days ago paid off: Moving clear of the likes of David Etxebarria, Patrik Sinkewitz, Oscar Freire, Angel Vicioso and Cadel Evans 200 metres before the line, Di Luca outsprinted Luxembourg champion Kim Kirchen (Fassa Bortolo) and the 2004 triple winner Rebellin, who is still having respiratory problems in the damp, cold weather.
At the finish, the breakthrough classics contender first of all thanked his team. "My team did a great job," he said. "It was only when we all arrived together at the foot of the last climb that I thought of winning. This morning, I was actually more focused on Liège-Bastogne-Liège!"
That was also the impression he gave to Cyclingnews at the start in Charleroi, where Di Luca seemed extremely relaxed and jokingly said he was going to attack "before the last ascent".
In the end, Di Luca got there with the main bunch of course, but it didn't matter. "I did control the front riders in the finale," he said. "I was right there at the front when we hit the Mur, I had to control. I waited for the moves of the others, and I responded."
Kim Kirchen managed to get his nose in front of Di Luca with 200m to go, but it didn't last too long. However, the Fassa Bortolo man held off Rebellin for solid second place. "I felt good all day, especially when it started to rain," said Kirchen. "We arrived at the foot of the last climb, where the finish was, in a group of seventy. The men of Cunego set the pace. We climbed at a strong tempo until the last 250 metres, when I took the initiative and started the sprint. I went strongly, but Di Luca had an extra gear.
"My condition is good and I hope to be able to play for the win in Liege on Sunday. The finish there is not quite as hard and I should be more competitive against a Di Luca in these conditions."
Third placed Davide Rebellin commented, "I like the warm weather better. My legs were good today, but it was hard to breathe because of the bad weather." As for Liege-Bastogne-Liege, "I would love to win it again. Di Luca, Boogerd and Cunego are my main rivals."
How it unfolded
Under grey, threatening skies, the riders set out from Charleroi's Stade du Pays shortly after 11:00am. The opening kilometres were fast and aggressive, with Frederic Finot (Francaise des Jeux) the first rider to attack after 15 km. He managed to gain half a minute and just hung out in front until km 37, when Jef Peeters (Jacques), Kurt Van de Wouwer (MrBookmaker) and Oliver Kaisen (RAGT) set off in pursuit. Finot stayed clear of the other three, but they were just 13 seconds ahead of the bunch at km 52. That's when Benoît Poilvet (CA), Davide Bramati (Quick.Step) and Jens Voigt (CSC) got across, and the main seven man break was formed.
The peloton gave them a bit of room and at the top of the first climb of the Mur de Huy (km 65), the seven had 2'45 as Van de Wouwer led them over. On the descent, the lead increased to 3'10 at km 70, which was the maximum lead of the break. By the time they had reached the Mur for the second time, it was hovering between 1'30 and 2'00 as the peloton began to increase the tempo. After the top of the Mur, Di Luca's Liquigas team got on the front, and with the help of Marco Serpellini (Gerolsteiner), had the break pegged at between 1'00 and 1'30.
In front, Jens Voigt was looking very strong but he knew he didn't have much time to play with. On the Côte de Pailhe (km 132.5), he began to force the tempo to keep the gap at 1'15, holding it there for the next 10 km as the peloton started to ride harder. But with 60 km to go, Voigt had had enough and attacked the tiring breakaway, with only Jef Peeters (Jacques) managing to hold his wheel.
There were several attempts from the peloton to close the gap to Voigt and Peeters, which rapidly went up to 2'00 again. Thierry Marichal (Cofidis) and Sylvain Calzati (Ag2r) bridged to the remnants of the breakaway (Bramati, Finot, Van de Wouwer and Poilvet), but were swallowed by the peloton at 45 km to go as rain started to fall and the roads became slick and dangerous, causing several crashes.
On the Côte de Bellaire with 43 km left, Voigt surprised Peeters and powered away from him, hoping to get to the Mur de Huy alone. The German super-diesel still had 1'47 on the peloton, which was led by Liquigas, Illes Balears and Phonak's Uros Murn. Rik Verbrugghe (Quick.Step) had hopes of repeating his 2001 victory and attacked on the Côte de Bohissau with 32 km to go, catching Peeters but not being able to get clear of the peloton. The pair were drawn back in to the peloton while Voigt increased his lead out to 1'52.
The chase really started then, driven by Liquigas, Illes Balears and Murn, and the peloton had closed to within 1'00 of Voigt at the foot of the Côte de Ahin with 12 km to go. Voigt lost a lot of ground on the climb as Andrey Kashechkin (CA) tried to get up to him, but he couldn't quite close that gap and it was 15 seconds over the top, with the strung out peloton another 10 seconds back.
On the run into Huy, Voigt gave up the rest of his lead to Kashechkin, Chavanel, Pereiro and Pineau. But even they couldn't hold off the bunch before the climb commenced, and it was all together at the foot of the 1.3 km Mur. The protected team leaders massed at the front in a battle for position on the brutally steep climb. Di Luca, Freire, Vinokourov, Rebellin, Sinkewitz, Kirchen and Celestino were all there, and it was the climb and the riders' legs that decided the finishing order. With 200m to go, Kirchen accelerated, but Di Luca countered and moved past the Luxembourg champion to take his second victory in four days, with Rebellin again showing good form by finishing third.
Can Di Luca do the triple, á la Rebellin last year? He definitely has the form to win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday.