71st Flèche Wallonne - PT
Belgium, April 25, 2007
ProTour leader Davide Rebellin fortified his hold on the white jersey with an impressive win on top of the Mur de Huy today. His victory comes just after team-mate Stefan Schumacher won Amstel on Sunday.
The 35 year-old Italian repeated his 2004 victory when he kicked clear with 200 metres to go, going around a fading Matthias Kessler (Astana) and opening up a six second winning margin. Last year's champion Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) put in a late surge to take second, with Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) also getting by the German to take third.
"It was a day without stress for me," said Rebellin after taking his second career win in Flèche. "I made it the finale and it was possible to go for the win. I risked a lot because the escape of Di Luca and Valverde was dangerous."
In 2004 he first won the Flèche on his way to making history; he had already taken victory he Amstel Gold three days before and came good in Liège-Bastogne-Liège four days later. That fabulous week was the first time that cycling had ever seen an Ardennes Triple. Three years on the rider from Verona showed his class once more.
Rebellin's compatriot Di Luca won the 2005 edition, making the first three over the line all recent winners of the gruelling mid-week Classic. "At Amstel I did a great race; I was with the best," noted Di Luca to Cyclingnews at the start. "Today and Sunday I will try to be with best once again to play for victory."
Having already won both Amstel and Flèche in 2005 Di Luca still wanted to add another Flèche to his palmarès. "Liege is more important but I would also like to win today, what is important to win one of them. The team is doing well. We have a great team."
After the race he was satisfied with his performance. "I went with the best. I did well with the third place," noted Di Luca, exhausted after the day's efforts. He was in the leading escape in the final ten kilometres but it was caught with only three kilometres remaining.
Astana's Alexander Vinokourov and Kessler then took over the charge once the race hit the base of the Huy. This moved suited 'Tin-Tin' Rebellin, whose last win came in October 2006, with the overall of the Giro dell'Emilia. "The climbs went well," he noted. "In the finale Vinokourov did a lot of work, then Kessler, the peloton was all lined out. I think it was a little far out for them but it worked well for me."
Valverde was content with result and hopes that with sixth in Amstel and second today, he is building towards the elusive Liège win. "I was very happy and I am feeling better than Amstel. The team did really well today and it is a pity that I could not repay them but I can't win all the races. Overall, to be in the front was good."
The Spaniard thought ahead to Sunday, "In Liège I think I will see the same rivals as today." Di Luca will be one of his key rivals. "He was a little upset with me and then came up to me to talk after the race. He thought I should have collaborated but I said that I had a teammate, Joaquím Rodríguez, up ahead, so I could no help him... Joaquím rode a great race."
The 2006 winner showed class by keeping his head and fighting for a podium spot. "After we were caught by the bunch I felt I did not have any more strength but in the finale but then in the final metres I found something more. I was able to catch and pass Riccò and Kessler."
Rebellin, who was not presented the white ProTour jersey after the race, now leads the overall classification. It is interesting to note that since the ProTour classification started in 2005 that the winner of this Ardennes Classic has also gone on to win the final overall.
How it unfolded
The race departed from a sunny and hot Charleroi. Most of the 189 riders gathered were talking of the incidents of the last week but all were ready start racing the 202.5 kilometres to the Mur de Huy. There was one non-starter, Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel).
The riders were set to cover the 1,300 metre Mur beast three times, the final being the finish. The climb has a 9.3% average gradient and some sections of 14, 19 and 25%. Between the second and third ascent there was a collection of côtes (or "hills" in this French-speaking part of Belgium) which helped thin the pack, including the Pailhe (km 115), Peu d'Eau (km 137), Haut-Bois (km 142), Thon (km 152.5), Bonneville (km 160.5), Bohissau (km 172.5), and Ahin (km 188).
The flag dropped to start the race soon after 11:20 am, and immediately the attacked commenced. Freddy Bichot (Agritubel), Morris Possoni (Lampre-Fondital), and Paul Manning (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner) went clear at kilometre four. The trio marked the first attack of the day but also was the first capture of the day for the peloton.
Another attack was made from trio Hugo Sabido (Barloworld), Niki Terpstra (Milram) and, again, Manning. They were joined by Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and Didier Rous (Bouygues Telecom), but the five fell to the power of a Rabobank-led peloton.
Bichot was key in forming the race's first successful escape. The Frenchman of Agritubel led an attack at kilometre 40 that was joined by Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Loosli (Lampre-Fondital), and Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole). The four men quickly built a gap that by the first ascent of the Mur was 6'50".
Over the Côte d'Ereffe (kilometre 84.5), the gap stablized. The four riders - two French, one Italian and one Spaniard - steadily plugged towards the second climb of the Mur. For the second time they covered the Huy, amongst throngs of fans, free of the peloton. At the top of the Huy the gap was just under five minutes, at 4'30".
The peloton was being led by Gerolsteiner, for Rebellin and Schumacher, and Caisse d'Epargne for Valverde. The two teams kept the gap at four minutes going into the Côte de Pailhe. Slightly before the climb, Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff Credit Systems) gave a dig to try to join the front four on his own.
The 19 year-old Russian quickly put a minute into the peloton and sat about two minutes behind the four escapees. He was only able to hang off the front for 15 kilometres, and he was pulled back under the strenght of Liquigas and Caisse.
Liquigas was showing the same force that they did in Amstel for its leader Di Luca. The Italian won Amstel and Fleche in 2005 before going on to win the inagural edition of the ProTour general classification.
Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) exploded the race before the Côte de Peu d'Eau. The Belgian launched off the peloton and quickly gained a gap. Behind him was shrapnel; the race now seemed to be taking shape as small groups formed.
Crashes slowed down Tim Klinger (Gerolsteiner) and three-time World Champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) on the backside of the Peu d'Eau. Up front, Merckx's move had been pulled back but the peloton was now being shredded to bits. The tension was also being felt up front, where the leaders only had a 30 second gap.
Verdugo and Bichot moved off on their own in a desperate attempt to remain free. However, their time seemed limited because the big teams were cueing up for a showdown with only five climbs remaining before the last ascent of Huy. Bichot, after going free at kilometre 40, finally cracked at kilometre 144.
Verdugo was solo but his move would soon be caught, clearing way for the big artilleries. The major teams were allowing the Basque his freedom; he faced the Côte de Thon with just over one minute's advantage. Behind Bichot had been caught by an attack from Benny De Schrooder (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen).
Saunier Duval kicked into action after the Thon. The team sent its men, including Gilberto Simoni, to the front for Riccardo Riccò. In the town of Sclayn there was now only 40 seconds between Verdugo and the peloton. Left to race were 46 kilometres and four climbs; Côte de Bonneville, Côte de Bohisseau, Côte de Ahin, and the Mur de Huy.
The Bonneville cracked many riders off the back of the peloton and spelled the end for Verdugo, while up front it was Cédric Vasseur (Quickstep-Innergetic) and Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) who were leading the charge. The Frenchman took a small adantage, near 10 seconds, in an attempt to soften his rivals for his teammates.
Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux) fired off the front immediately after Vasseur was caught. The native Walloon held his own over the Bohissau but behind the pace was kicked up another notch. Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) blasted on the climb. The Spaniard momentarily worked his way off the front with Alexander Efimkin (Barloworld) in an attempt to weaken the field for teammate Valverde.
The field was back together heading to the penultimate climb, Côte de Ahin. Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), Bram Tankink (Quickstep-Innergetic) and Rogers were active at the front. Vino did not like this situation, nearing around 15, and ordered teammate Serguei Ivanov to attack. The 32 year-old Russian was set free with 26 kilometres to go, an excellent move for Vino.
Caisse mounted the chase for Valverde while Bettini was seen suffering at the rear end. The race was unfolding and the Italian did not seem to have the legs. He violently threw off one of his water bottles. He eventually dropped off the pace to talk with his team car.
On the Coote de Ahin, Ivanov started to fade. Liquigas was heading the peloton when an attack came from the winner of Pais Vasco, Juan José Cobo (Saunier Duval-Prodir). Over the top, the Spaniard bridged with the Russian - the two held on to a 20 second gap.
An attack by Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) prompted Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) and Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) into action. The trio briged to the two leaders at kilometre 12.5. Another formed behind them, containing Cristian Moreni (Cofidis), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel), and Thomas Dekker (Rabobank).
Di Luca, Kirchen, Valverde, and Rodriguez then went clear together, with the latter surging clear with approximately eight kilometres remaining. Aided by Valverde's presence in the break, he opened up a lead of six seconds. However there was a big chase on behind and everything came back together with less than three kilometres to go.
Simon Gerrans (AG2R-Prévoyance) led the bunch as they approached the kite and the last ascent of the fearsome Mur de Huy, then Astana took over and appeared to be setting things up for Vinokourov.
However it was the Kazakhstani himself who led the frontrunners into the final 500 metres, the bunch really starting to fragment as the gradient kicked in. His teammate Kessler then took over, with Rebellin and Ricco on his wheel, and his efforts pulled a small group clear.
Rebellin remained calm and perfectly poised, biding his time as the others wilted under the pace set by Kessler. He came around the Astana rider with 150 metres to go and kicked hard, opening up a considerable gap by the line. Behind, Valverde and Di Luca overhauled a fading Kessler to take second and third, respectively, while the German hung on to take fourth ahead of Ricco and Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R-Prévoyance). CSC's Frank Schleck showed he is recovering from the injuries incurred three days ago by taking seventh.