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Evans hits out early but fades on feared Mur de Huy Luxembourg's Kim...
Kim Kirchen (High Road) tops the podium with Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) (r) and with Damiano Cunego (Lampre) (l).
Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen played the waiting game to perfection and came up golden in the 72nd Flèche Wallonne as he topped the feared Mur de Huy while the early attackers faded. The 29 year-old of Team High Road, winner of two stages in the recent Vuelta al País Vasco, moved clear with 175 metres remaining to win the 199.5 kilometre race in Belgium's Wallonne region ahead of Australian Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre).
"I got second before. It's been the same thing for the last three or four years, except that today I was the strongest," said a very emotional Kirchen at the finish of a wet day.
Second in 2005 with Italian team Fassa Bortolo, Kirchen used the strength of his High Road squad to make a late surge in the mid-week Classic. The team placed Italian Marco Pinotti in the day's main 19-man escape group, forcing the other favourites' teams to chase.
The race re-shaped on the Côte de Ahin with 13 kilometres remaining when Swede Gustav Erik Larsson (Team CSC) started a move and was joined by German Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) and Russian Alexander Efimkin (Quick Step). The escape lost Larsson due to a crash on a left-hand hairpin, but the remaining two pressed on to the base of the race ending, 1300-metre Mur de Huy.
With Efimkin exhausted, Wegmann pressed on solo and held a 20-second advantage to the final kilometre. But he quickly succumbed to the savage gradients of the Mur as Evans blasted past with 400 metres remaining. Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Cunego, Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Kirchen were all in tow as the 31 year-old Australian fought hard with Amstel Gold winner Cunego and last year's winner Rebellin.
However, Kitchen had been waiting in the wings and fired his timely move in the final metres. His status as a favourite for Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège has now been considerably enhanced. "I don't know," he said of the Belgian Classic in four days' time. "It's 50 kilometres longer and first I need to recover by Sunday – everything is possible. I haven't been training too long because the season goes on for a while with the Tour de France, the World Championships and the Olympics."
Evans, who has already been in hot form this season with wins in stage two of the Ruta del Sol, and the overall plus a stage in the Coppi e Bartali, lacked a little endurance on one of cycling's steepest climbs and couldn't quite seal the deal.
"It was a perfect race for the team," he said. "The team worked for me all day and I was in perfect position, but it was too bad I could not finish off the job – Kirchen was just better. I saw on the Mur that some of the guys were having problems with the cold. I went long."
Damiano Cunego had approached the race in a relaxed fashion after his Amstel Gold win on Sunday, but still with his usual fighting spirit. "I race always to win," the 26 year-old had said before the race. He proved his form is still good and hopes to be better suited to the longer distance on Sunday. "I feel I can express myself better on the longer races, like Liège-Bastogne-Liège," he said.
Nonetheless, the versatile Italian found himself on the podium of another Classic. "I have to be satisfied because I was in a position to win," stated Cunego, who bounced back in the final metres to claim third over Rabobank's Robert Gesink and Thomas Dekker.
"Kirchen was just fabulous in the final part of the Mur de Huy," he added. "It was really dangerous out there today and that really affected the chase. I put my team-mates on the front just to keep me out of trouble. It is too bad I did not win, but it is a good sign [of form]."
The Ardennes Classics week continues this Sunday with the third and final instalment, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. One of cycling's five Monuments (along with Milano-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix and Giro di Lombardia), the race starts in Liège and ends 261 kilometres later in Ans.
The peloton rolled out of Charleroi at 11.30 under good weather conditions where 199 riders began their undulating journey towards the Mur de Huy. Just one rider didn't take the start today: Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom).
The first attack came after 12 kilometres, and contained Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom), Marco Pinotti (Team High Road), Alexander Serov (Tinkoff Credit Systems) and Steven Kleynen (Landbouwkrediet - Tönissteiner). But it did not last very long, only a few kilometres, and the gap was not much more than 10 seconds.
The average speed in the first hour was 47.7 km/h, preventing any breakaway from gaining a sizeable advantage. The bunch was together for most of the second hour of racing too.
On the summit of the Côte d'Ereffe (km 84), Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R La Mondiale), Andy Schleck (Team CSC) and Alberto Fernandez De La Puebla Ramos (Saunier Duval - Scott) were leading a small group that gained a small advantage over the remainder of the peloton. This was to be the foundations of the day's main breakaway.
Markus Fothen, Andrea Moletta (Gerolsteiner), Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne), Nicki Sørensen (Team CSC), Johan Tschopp (Bouygues), Francis Mourey (FDJ), Rémi Pauriol (Crédit Agricole), Addy Engels (Quickstep), Volodymyr Bileka and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence - Lotto) and Huub Duyn (Slipstream Chipotle Presented By H30) joined that front group soon after, chased by Marco Pinotti (High Road). The leaders had an advantage of 15 seconds.
As the break approached the Mur de Huy for the second time (km 93), Alexandr Kolobnev (CSC), Paul Martens (Rabobank), Philippe Gilbert (FDJ) and Jason Donald (Slipstream) were bridging up to the leaders while the main peloton was already 1'15 adrift.
Donald couldn't hold the pace on top of the tremendously difficult climb, and the lead group thus counted 18 riders around kilometre 100: Andrea Moletta and Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner), Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne), Alberto Fernandez De La Puebla Ramos (Saunier Duval - Scott), Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R La Mondiale), Alexandr Kolobnev, Andy Schleck and Nicki Sørensen (Team CSC), Paul Martens (Rabobank), Johann Tschopp (Bouygues Telecom), Philippe Gilbert, Francis Mourey (Française des Jeux), Rémi Pauriol (Crédit Agricole), Addy Engels (Quick Step), Volodymyr Bileka and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence - Lotto), Marco Pinotti (Team High Road) and Huub Duyn (Slipstream Chipotle Presented By H30).
This breakaway obtained a maximum lead of 2'50, but under the pace of the pursuing peloton, it dropped again to 2'10 by km 120.
At this point the April weather held true to its promise and as the rain started to pour, the leaders' advantage also began to shrink. The gap dropped under the one-minute mark with 60 kilometres to race, and ten kilometres later, Schleck, Sørensen, Martens, Pinotti, Van Den Broeck and Efimkin attacked out of the decomposing front group, but were caught again soon after.
The leaders began to fragment as the peloton began turning the screw behind. Even Gilbert couldn't hold the pace, and the lead group counted just 11 riders with 40 kilometres to go: Andy Schleck, Nicki Sørensen, Alexandr Kolobnev (Team CSC), Paul Martens (Rabobank), Marco Pinotti (Team High Road), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence - Lotto), Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R La Mondiale), Andrea Moletta (Gerolsteiner), Johann Tschopp (Bouygues Telecom), Addy Engels (Quick Step) and Volodymyr Bileka (Slipstream Chipotle Presented By H30).
With the bunch driving hard at less than 30 seconds, a super strong Efimkin jumped away, followed by Sørensen. With 35 kilometres to go, Van den Broeck and Engels joined them, while the remainder of the break was swept up by the peloton.
But the quartet didn't last long. On the Côte de Bohisseau, just as the leaders were caught, Maxime Monfort (Cofidis) countered, followed by Australian champion Matthew Lloyd (Silence-Lotto). The rain continued as more riders bridged up to the newly-formed chase group behind the Frenchman: Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R La Mondiale), Nicki Sørensen (CSC), Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Matt Lloyd (Silence - Lotto), Addy Engels (Quick Step), Daniele Righi (Lampre) and Bert De Waele (Landbouwkrediet).
But Monfort soon ran out of juice and Grivko countered with 22 kilometres to go. The bunch was still only 45 seconds behind, but every attack had a chance at this late stage. The Ukrainian got a good gap over his eight chasers and continued to increase it impressively. A few clicks later, on the Côte de Ahin with 13 km to go, Grivko was leading solo as the chase group had disintegrated into what was left of the peloton, now preparing for the race finale.
Under the pace-making of Cofidis and Caisse d'Epargne, Grivko was caught with 12 kilometres to go, and immediately another kamikaze move followed by Gustav Erik Larsson (Team CSC). The Swede was soon joined by teeth-grinding German champion Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), with the rest of the bunch only a few seconds adrift.
Under the 10km mark, the duo got the company of Alexander Efimkin (Quick Step), and the three riders took on the tricky descent into Huy, which took its toll on Larsson. The Swede crashed on a hairpin corner and left Wegmann and Efimkin alone out front, leading the bunch of favourites by 24 seconds.
Both riders tried to distance each other before hitting the Mur de Huy, which saw Wegmann creating a gap over Efimkin with three kilometres to go. The German was impressive, and took on the final climb seven seconds in front of the Russian. But as the favourites flew by in their bid for victory, the race was destined for its customary uphill sprint.
Evans hit out first, and was immediately followed by Kirchen. The Luxemburger passed the Australian and was able to hold him off over the remaining metres. As Kirchen crossed the line to win by four bike lengths, Evans held on for second with Amstel Gold winner Damiano Cunego grabbing third.