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Alberto Contador (Astana) wins stage four of Paris-Nice
Some well-placed tweaks to the hilly Ardennes course and the presence of Alberto Contador (Astana) promises to make this year's 74th edition of Flèche Wallonne a far more exciting and entertaining race.
Contador has ridden the Ardennes classics only twice, in 2006 and in 2007, before he emerged as the best stage racer of his generation. He has won three of the four stage races he has ridden this year and looked strong at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon that ended on Sunday.
His explosive attacking style makes him ideal for the Mur de Huy and it will be fascinating to see how he performs on Wednesday and in Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Contador will have support from teammates Andriy Grivko, Maxim Iglinskiy and Oscar Pereiro but faces some tough competition from more traditional Flèche Wallonne favourites such as Cadel Evans (BMC), Andy and Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Farnese Vini), Amstel Gold Race winner Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Chris Horner (RadioShack) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne).
The Schlecks used their 'brother one-two' strategy at Amstel Gold Race, taking turns to attack, and will probably do the same at Flèche Wallonne. Gilbert has made it clear he will be saving himself for Liège-Bastogne-Liège but will he be able to resist trying for a hat trick of victories on home roads in the Ardennes?
Horner suffered on the Cauberg on Sunday but could do well on the Mur de Huy because he always manages to suffer more than most. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) also proved he can fight the burn of lactic acid with his impressive second place at the Amstel Gold Race. Perhaps he can drag his lanky frame up the steepest parts of the Mur de Huy and outlast his rivals, especially if he is part of a breakaway.
It will also be interesting to see Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) on the Mur de Huy. Simon Gerrans had a bad day at the Amstel Gold race and will be looking to bounce back. Team Sky has also included Thomas Löfkvist, Steve Cummings and Sylvain Calzati alongside Gerrans. That is a strong and experienced quartet capable of taking a result.
Reigning and three-time Flèche champion Davide Rebellin will not be in the race after it was announced he had failed a test for blood booster CERA at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He is fighting to clear his name and has little chance of a fourth victory.
Small but significant changes
Race organiser ASO presented details of the route changes last week but the significance and effects it could have on the race are yet to be fully understood.
HTC-Columbia directeur sportif Valeria Piva lives nearby and knows that the repositioning of the second climb of the Mur de Huy, just 30km from the third climb to the top and the finish of the race, could change the usual outcome of the race.
"It's going to be very different because the second last ascent of the Mur De Huy climb is much closer to the finish than in previous years," predicted Piva.
"That means breakaways will have a much better chance of getting away on the second time up the Mur de Huy climb and staying away. We won't have 50 riders at the foot of the climb for the third and final ascent like we've seen in other years."
The Cote d’Ereffe climb has also been added just 11km from the finish. It's 2.1km long, with a gradient of 5.9 percent; perfect for a small group to try and get way before the final time up the Mur de Huy. The route changes means there are now testing climbs during the 198km parcours.
Will Contador be the first to the top of the near vertical Mur de Huy?