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Welcome to Cyclingnews' live coverage of the 74th La Flèche Wallonne, the second of the three Ardennes Classics. Today's race will see a field of 197 riders (25 teams of eight) compete over a 198km course through the Walloon region of Belgium from Charleroi to Huy. The race will include pass the famous Mur de Huy twice before making the final ascent of the 1.4km (9.8 per cent) 'wall' to the finish line.
Welcome to the Walloon region of Belgium. It's a chilly day here in the southern part of the country, around 7.5 degrees celcius.
Let's start with an update on the race situation. The field have covered just over 70 kilometres of the day's course. Currently we have a breakaway of five riders: David Loosli (Lampre-Farnese Vini), Dimitri Champion (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Benjamin Gourgue (Landbouwkredit), Stephane Auge (Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne) and Giuseppe Palumbo (Acqua & Sapone). The quintet are enjoying a healthy lead of almost eight and a half minutes.
Further to the earlier weather report, the peloton are out on the roads and now enjoying balmy temperatures of 15°C, very little wind and cloudy conditions, though there doesn't appear to be the threat of any rain.
Speaking of precipitation, Giuseppe Palumbo (Acqua & Sapone) had been the man to precipitate the five-man escape group. The Italian attacked after 44 kilometres with the field putting up little resistance as he was joined by his four companions.
The race has already knocked over the first of three ascents of the Mur de Huy, that climb coming for the first time at kilometre 67. Here are the list of climbs on the agenda for today:
Km 67 - Mur de Huy (1.3 km at 9.3 per cent)
Km 106.5 - Côte de Peu d’Eau (2.7 km at 3.9 per cent)
Km 112 - Côte de Haut-Bois (1.6 km at 4.8 per cent)
Km 137.5 - Côte de Groynne (2 km at 3.5 per cent)
Km 143.5 - Côte de Bohisseau (1.3 km at 7.6 per cent)
Km 146.5 - Côte de Bousalle (1.7 km at 4.9 per cent)
Km 157.5 - Côte d’Ahin (2.3 km at 6.5 per cent)
Km 168.5 - Mur de Huy (1.3 km at 9.3 per cent)
Km 187 - Côte d’Ereffe (2.1 km at 5.9 per cent)
Km 198 - Mur de Huy (1.3 km at 9.3 per cent)
The proximity of the climbs to one another has been intensified for this year's edition of the race. While the Mur de Huy will decide the ultimate outcome of the day's result, Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck feels it could see the field ride conservatively in order to conserve their energy for the final battery of ascents:
"I cant tell you now how I'm going to go today, but once you have the shape you don't lose it and I felt strong at Amstel," Schleck said at the start.
"Some guys think the course is harder, I think it might even make it a little bit easier. It could slow down the race. A selection of ten will form - even if there are 100 riders at the base of the Huy for the finish, it'll still be the same ten guys who come to the front."
There are four nations represented in our breakaway group, Loosli (Swiss), Palumbo (Italian), Gourgue (Belgian), and Champion and Auge (both French).
There is a distinctly French flavour to today's race, taking place as it does in the French speaking region of Belgium. There's also the influence of race organiser Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), who also arrange the Tour de France.
Local hero Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) received the most rousing ovation at the sign-on this morning.
The first ascent of the Huy did begin to impact on the advantage of the leaders. The race still has 120-odd kilometres to cover, but Caisse d'Epargne and Katusha are working to control the gap, which has dropped to 7:10.
Out on the road, the leaders' advantage continues to drop. They've just raced through the town of Havelange, still holding on to 6:20 of their advantage.
Sky arrived with a full compliment of riders this morning, having been without Bradley Wiggins for Amstel Gold due to the volcano. After running out of gas in the last 30km of Sunday's race Simon Gerrans' will share captaincy with Wiggins and Thomas Lövkvist.
"Sunday was better, I felt pretty good at Amstel and I definitely feel I'm coming back to form," Gerrans told Cyclingnews this morning.
"I think we'll play it by ear today. We've got three guys - myself, Thomas and Bradley - so we should all be there for the last time up the Huy. I think we'll probably talk about it on the road."
The race averaged an impressive 46km/h in its first hour. Having hit the hillier section of the course since then, the pace has dropped back to 41.2km/h.
The leaders' are still merging closer to the peloton. They're 5:40 ahead at the moment.
Despite having raced almost half the race distance, the peloton have only encountered one 'recognised' climb. Then next, the Côte de Peu d’Eau, is around ten kilometres from where the breakaway are now. The Peu d’Eau shouldn't cause too much consternation, it's the longest of the day at 2.7km, but only averages 3.7 per cent gradient.
Of the nine climbs on the Flèche Wallonne course, the Mur de Huy is the most legendary. At 1.3km and an average of 9.3 per cent, it's long and steep enough to wipe-out premature attacks. However, the average gradient doesn't reveal the true severity of the climb, which kicks right up to 19 per cent. Just what you want at the end of 198km of racing.
RadioShack's Chris Horner told Cyclingnews he was feeling good. He's well acquainted with the Huy, having raced here twice before.
"Hopefully we can make the selection," the American said at the start. "It's usually a group of around 50 riders. It's steep and I like the length, it usually sorts things out.
In the breakaway Palumbo has just dropped back to his team car to grab a coke. There's no panic in the lead group, they're swapping short turns with their advantage now settled at between 5:00 and 5:15.
The cobbles are behind us for another year, but the race is still travelling over the distinctive concrete roads that are found here in Belgium.
The peloton is racing its way through a forest at present. A few riders are darting off the front of the field.
A chase group has now formed in between the leaders and the peloton. Big Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) is driving the chase group of around 10-15 riders, we'll get names of this group as soon as possible. But Jens is definitely in there...he's hardly difficult to spot!
The race has cleared the second and third climbs of the day: The Côte de Peu d’Eau and Côte de Haut-Bois. The leaders are still working away out front as they make their way through the Carrefour region.
*NB, I've switched over to distance-to-go from the finish.
Astana have assumed control of the peloton, but the the chase group riding almost a minute ahead of them includes: Laurent Didier and Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank), Daniele Righi (Lampre-Farnese Vini), Thomas De Gendt (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator), Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Christophe Moreau (Caisse d'Epargne) and Christopher Froome (Sky).
There's a big crash in the peloton as it sweeps around a right hand bend. There are about five or six riders on the ground. Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack) is clutching his right leg.
It was a very strange crash - a rider from the front right-hand side of the peloton sweeping across to the opposite side of the road and taking out a big chunk of riders. Christophe Brandt (Omega Pharma-Lotto) was also caught up in the crash but he's back up and riding.
Meanwhile, the chase group is still tearing away at the leaders' advantage. The gap has dropped to 2:34. Moreau has left the group temporarily to replace a rear puncture - at the pace they're going he'll face a real task to get back on.
Katusha, Caisse d'Epargne, Liquigas-Doimo and Astana are stringing the peloton out now. They're closing on the chase group faster than the chase is to the breakaway.
The leaders are climbing the Côte de Groynne. Again, it's not too much of a challenge: 2km at 3.5 per cent.
The crash and ensuing lift in pace appears to have ejected a lot of riders from the back of the main field - it has shrunk considerably in the last five kilometres.
Jens Voigt is taking another turn at the front of the chase group, but they look likely to be swept up by what remains of the peloton shortly.
Britain's Emma Pooley (Cervelo TestTeam) has just won the women's Flèche Wallonne, the fourth round of the women's World Cup.
The man that started the breakaway Guiseppe Palumbo (Acqua & Sapone) is being detached from the escape on the slopes of the Côte de Bohisseau. We now have a four man lead group.
The chase group has just been brought back by the peloton on the Côte de Bohisseau, where Palumbo's undoing occurred only a minute and a half ago.
Voight immediately assumes second wheel in the peloton - chase group or no chase group, Saxo Bank continue their pursuit.
The climbs are coming quick-fire now and the effect is starting to show in the breakaway. Champion and Auge both displaying a laboured pedalling action as they climb the Côte de Bousalle
We're still 50 kilometers from the finish, but the selection is already starting. Katusha are pushing the pace in the peloton. Serguei Ivanov looks back to see what sort of damage his tempo is doing.
Ivanov's impetus has given way to a three-man attack, including his teammate Eduard Vorganov, Blel Kadri (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Bram Tankink (Rabobank). They're a minute behind the leaders.
Ag2R aren't mucking around today. Champion was signed to the team to attack and he's been doing that for the last 100km. Youngster Kadri is out there providing reinforcement.
Literally, as the three-man chase have now linked up with the four leaders.
The pace has slackened somewhat in the peloton. Loosli, Champion and Auge have managed to remain clear of their pursuers for now.
Loosli, Auge and Champion are attacking the Côte d’Ahin. Actually, attacking is probably not the most apt description for the way they're riding the climb - it's all about survival at this point.
Oops! Auge's had enough, he's being dropped by his companions as the top of the 2.3km climb approaches.
In the peloton, HTC-Columbia are leading the way, Martin Velits prominent in second wheel.
Apologies, I omitted to include Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick Step) in the chase group. However, that group remains at four riders, Gourgue having been dropped.
They're 33 seconds behind the leaders, and about that same time gap ahead of the peloton
The fuse has been lit once more in the peloton, Katusha the ones playing with matches. The field is strung out single file as it sweeps across open Walloon farmland - Serguei Ivanov is again at the front of the action.
The next climb will be the second ascent of the Mur de Huy, 30 kilometres before the finish on the same slope. The race will reach it for that penultimate ascent in around eight kilometres.
The leaders group reformed into a group of seven (the leaders and the chasers).
A three-man chase group has now emerged from the peloton, including Michael Kreder (Garmin-Transitions).
The Kreder group has been swept up almost as soon as quickly as it had appeared. That was one of the first sightings of a Garmin-Transitions rider all day. We haven't seen Ryder Hesjedal just yet, but if he's in the peloton he'll be a threat at the finish.
"I'll just take it as it comes today. The form is there and so is the confidence," he told Cyclingnews at the start in Charleroi this morning. "The pressure is and it isn't there. There are three podiums this week and I've already got myself on to one of them. Liege is the one that's occupied my thinking the most - today's important for that."
To coin a phrase: 'It's time to hit the Huy'. The peloton is led by Liquigas onto the climb for the second last time. They're on the coat-tails of the breakaway.
Andy Schleck heads straight to the front of the peloton. Does he just want to show himself, or his he laying tracks for his brother Frank to attack next time around?
Champion is passed by Schleck as the Luxembourg rider wipes away the breakaway. Contador's right up there too, as are Frank Schleck and Damiano Cunego. They're all here! This is going to be a corker of a finale!
Over the top of the Huy, Frank Schleck is at the front of the peloton as the riders survey the damage done. Frank, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and, incredibly, Davide Loosli (Lampre-Farnese Vini) is still able to follow.
Schleck, Kreuziger, Tankink and Loosli aren't going to wait around for anybody. They're the leaders on the road with a 9 second gap.
Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) is at the back of the peloton and looks to have some sort of mechanical problem. There's a chase group in pursuit of the three leaders, but they're not opening a decisive gap over the peloton at this stage.
Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) takes off from the peloton in pursuit of the leaders. He's got a good poker face - a constant grimace!
Kolobnev is no match for the peloton today. Astana's leading the chase back to the Russian, and the gap is 50 metres, 40 metres, 30, 20, 10, caught.
Frank Schleck is part of the quartet up the road, brother Andy is sitting pretty fourth-wheel in the peloton. The leaders are stretching their advantage gradually - it's almost 30 seconds now.
Andy Schleck's prediction that a large peloton will survive to the final trip up the Mur de Huy appears to be coming to fruition, there are at least 100 riders still present.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) punctures. A quick change of the front wheel and he's back on his way. He has teammate Bauke Mollema to lend him a hand.
The race is five kilometres away from the penultimate climb of the day, the Côte d’Ereffe 2.1km at 5.9 per cent - it could be enough to shake things up once more
Susan here to take you all the way to the end.
Astana continues to lead the chase, although one of their riders just had to peel off. We see Cadel Evans up near the front, too.
Evans knows what wheel to hang on to: he is directly behind Alberto Contador.
More and more riders are dropping off the back now. The gaps is 20 seconds.
Katusha's Ivanov gives it a go, he takes off from the field.
Ivanov, who won last year's Amstel Gold Race, maintains a slight lead, but Contador and all still have him in their sights.
Andy Schleck moves to the front of the chase group, to calm them down and hold them back. He doesn't want them to catch his brother's group up ahead.
Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin leads the way to catch Ivanov.
More riders continue to try and get away from the main group. A. Schleck keeps a tight control on things, and won't let anyone too dangerous go. The gap is 22 seconds.
Kolobnev and two others have built up a small lead on the field, as the gap to the four leaders drops to 12 seconds.
The pace is high, as the leaders try to stay away and everyone else is desperate to catch them.
Remember, we still have one more climb of the Mur to come.
The four ,leaders are caught. Behind them, a Euskaltel rider has gone down.
The group in front is exploded, and it is every man for himself.
Kolobnev takes off and has the lead. Schleck and the Liquigas rider give chase.
THe peloton is still fairly large, as it chases Kolobnev.
LL Sanchez abd Valverde take off out of the field.
The two Spaniards are unable to get away, but they lead the charge to catch Kolobnev with 2km left.
UP they go again, n a large group.
He is unable to stay away though, with an Euskaltel rider leadng the charge. Contador is right on his heels.
They sruggle their way up.
Contador finally moves around the Euskaltel rider. Evans is right behind them.
WHat a long final km this is..... Evans passes Contador and takes the win!
With only 10 mtres or so to go, Evans moved past the struggling Contador to take the win.
The first win this season for BMC Racing Team -- and what a win!
Contador was passed by not only Evans, but also by Joaquin Rodriguez of Katusha. The Astana rider was third in the end.
It was a clear win for Evans, who easily pulled away in the closing metres.
That was certainly a most exciting and most unexpected finish -- but what a thrilling one!
Hope you will join us again on Sunday for Liege-Bastogne-Liege, as we close out the Spring Classics for 2010. Thanks for reading along!