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Hello and welcome to Cyclingnews's live coverage from Flèche Wallonne.
La Flèche Wallonne maybe be considered a mid-week warm-up for Sunday's Liège - Bastogne - Liège but the finish atop the steep climb of the Mur de Huy, always creates a spectacular finale and leaves riders gasping for air and fighting the searing pain of lactic acid in their legs.
The Ardennes exalt the skills of the hilly classics riders but La Flèche Wallonne is more suited to the specialist power climber, who may struggle with the attacks and fighting for position at the Amstel Gold Race or Liège - Bastogne - Liège, but who excels at producing that final effort on the 9.3 per cent gradient of the 1.3km Mur.
This year's race route again covers a distance of 201km, with the start in the shadows of the Charleroi football stadium before a 130km ride east to Huy for the first time up the Mur and through the finish area.
There then follows a loop through the Ardennes hills between Huy and Namur before a second time over the Mur and a final, smaller circuit that sets up the riders for the finish atop of the Mur one last time.
Position and efficiency is vital during the race, especially on the climbs late on, so that the riders have as much strength and freshness left in their legs for the final climb of the Mur.
This morning at the start it was sunny , clear skies and warm with little in the way of wind. Perfect racing condition.
Just to bring you up to date. We have four riders up the road and they have a whopping lead of 16:30. We'll bring you their names in just a second.
Our leaders are...Maciej Paterski, Preben Van Hecke, Maxime Vantomme and Matti Helminen.
This year's start list in mightily impressive. Although defending champ, Cadel Evans, isn't here - he's currently injured there are a host of big names on the start list.
Rodriguez who finished second in Amstel is here and will lead Katusha, but they also have Di Luca who was quiet in Amstel, Moreno, Ivanov and Kolobnev.
Saxo are here with Contador who will probably start as favourite, even though he's not quite at 100 per cent yet.
Gesink will lead Rabobank, while Garmin will be looking for a good result from either Hesjedal, Le Mevel, Dan Martin or Vande Velde.
We've also got both Schlecks here, Fuglsang, Monfort and Wegmann.
Sky have brought Gerrans, who after his podium in Amstel, looks to be back to somewhere near his best.
Lampre have Cunego, although he's looked off the pace recently.
Lotto bring Amstel champ Gilbert here. Today's climb might not suit him but he's in such good form it would be a mistake not to take him.
Basso is here too.
The break are about to start the Mur de Huy for the first time....
Having lead the race by 17 minutes the gap has come down. By a massive five second. That's right, five seconds. It's currently at 16:55.
135km to go.
Rather off topic but still interesting. Here's Peter Cossins' feature on Fuentes, which we've taken from the latest issue of Procycling. Read it!
And the leaders are onto the slopes of the climb. Brutal, just brutal.
Who do you see as the favourite for today? Let me know at twitter.com/dnlbenson
Preben Van Hecke leads over the top on the climb. Still 130km to race.
According to the man with the chalkboard they've kept their advantage - well almost all of it. It's 16:40 now.
simplicityrd08 Ryan Dean
@dnlbenson I have to say the top 3 for today should be Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck & Joaquim Rodriguez... Winner from any 3...
We'll also be keeping you up to date on the women's race. In the women's race, Evelyn Stevens of HTC has a minute on the peloton, as they pass the 65 kilometre mark. They'll reach the first climb of the Mur de Huy in 15 km
We've also put together this gallery of images from Fleche. Looking as far back as 1996. We're adding more images to it now as well.
What's your favourite memory of the race? Not my favourite, but I always remember Camezind not being able to open his jacket - world champ at the time - and Bartoli storming to the win.
At the weekend in liege the Italian was too tired and we saw Frank Vandenbroucke take a memorable win.
In the women's race, at km 70, Evelyn Stevens' lead has increased to 1 min 15 secs, as the peloton return to Huy for the first time
Back to the men's race and Rabobank lead the bunch over the top of the climb for the first time. The gap has come down by a minute, so the chase is finally on.
Contador and the Schlecks are all near the front and keeping out of trouble.
PiesG David Gardiner @dnlbenson Contador - love or loathe him, he is in form, better kick than either Schleck, Gilbert might make the podium or prep for LBL
Just under 110km to race and the gap is slowly coming down. It's at 14.25
As the women's peloton pass over the Mur de Huy for the first time, HTC's Evelyn Stevens' lead has dropped to 20 seconds. A group of 20 riders are chasing her, including three-time winner Marianne Vos
We've not seen it ourselves but we're hearing reports that both Dan Martin and Nicholas Roche have crashed out of the race.
While Andreas Klöden (Radioshack) is racking up the wins lately not much is expected from the team in today's race. Still, a good result can be expected from Belgian rider Ben Hermans who surprised many people with his eighth place in the Amstel Gold Race. As a 22-year-old Hermans finished fourteenth in Huy when Rebellin won on top of the Mur in 2009. At the start in Charleroi the Belgian said he was looking forward to the race. “It's not because I'm stronger that I can do better. I didn't expect to do so well in Amstel as I peeked mentally to this race,” Hermans said. Team director Dirk Demol said he was confident Hermans could do well. “I wouldn't be surprised if he would finish in the top-10 once again. He's our leader today, together with Janez Brajkovic. He has been out of competition and should be better in Liège, and especially in the Tour of Romandie.”
BoldlyGoEvents Gearoid Towey
@dnlbenson mixing the womens and mens live reports is a good idea but bloody confusing!Fschleck to try something today?
Okay. When we mention the women's race though, that's when we're talking about the women's race.
Schleck will be looking to prove a point after crashing out of contention in Amstel.
@dnlbenson Top 3 Waalse Pijl: 1 Samuel Sanchez 2 Alberto Contador 3 Joachim Rodriguez
At 90km in the women's race, Evelyn Stevens still has 20 seconds on the chasing group. With under 20km to go, and one more climb before the finish on the Mur de Huy, we should soon see more attacks.
The gap is down to 12:40 now and we've got 90km to race - in the men's race. Still perfect racing conditions with the sun out and very little wind.
Our four leaders are working well. Katusha and Liquigas will be happy as things stand. They've both got men in the break and serious contenders for the win later on. Katusha have a few cards to play, in fact I'll bet Kolobnev attacks in the final 10km. He used the tactic last year.
12km to go in the women's race, and HTC's Evelyn stevens has finally been caught, after her long breakaway attempt
Leopard and Saxo Bank have moved to the front now. The gap is coming down and there's plenty of time to bring these four back but the two teams on the front feel now is the time to move up and set the pace.
Ten years ago Rik Verbrugghe won the Flèche Wallonne. Today the Belgian is a sports director for the BMC team. This morning Cyclingnews walked up to the former winner and asked him about his win and his team's chances for a good result in Huy. “It's surprising to hear that it's already ten years ago that I've won as I've only stopped racing in 2008. The winning tactic for me was to anticipate the final ascent. In 2009 it resulted in a second place behind Francesco Casagrande. If I would've stayed in the peloton I probably would finish top-10; I wasn't explosive enough. There's a good chance that a Belgian wins today as Gilbert is one of the three top contenders together with Contador and Rodriguez. The race didn't suit Gilbert in the past but now he's become stronger,” Verbrugghe said. “If Evans would still be here we would be one of the four teams that were allowed to wait for the Mur. Now we have to race offensively. The last two editions learned us that it's useless to wait for the penultimate ascent of the Mur. The great weather a downside for attackers though,” Verbrugghe said.
The Danish team of course looking for their second Classic of the season, having won Flanders through Nuyens. Another win today and they'll have equalled their haul from last Sping when Cancellara won Flanders and Roubaix with them.
Roche we're hearing has gone to hospital. We'll bring you more once we know it.
BMC has sent Louder and Kohler off up the road. The duo have a small gap of around 100 meters.
At 3km to go in the women's race, Diadora-Pasta Zara's Olga Zabelinskaya has launched an attack, with Marianne Vos immediately chasing her
A notable visitor of the start in Charleroi this morning was Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme and Energy minister Paul Magnette. Leterme is known to get along well with the people from the Katusha team, especially sports director Jef Braeckevelt. In Charleroi he caught up with the Russian team and he enjoyed a chat with Ivanov and other members of the team. Back in January 2009, shortly after the Belgian government fell Leterme joined the Katusha team during their training camp to breath different air.
The gap continues to drop with Leopard and Saxo doing all the work. It's at 10:30
In the women's race, Vos and Zabelinskaya have been caught at 1km to go
Not only Philippe Gilbert has a free role in the Omega Pharma-Lotto team. Also Jurgen Vandenbroeck has a protected role. "If I have the legs from Sunday I can do well. The Mur suits me well but it's flat out so there's nothing I can do for Phil. I have a free role today," Vandenbroeck said at the start this morning.
Marianne Vos wins her fourth Fleche Wallonne Femmes!
Two kms later and the leaders have lost another 30 seconds so the gap is falling rapidly.
Marianne Vos is the first rider to win the race four times - before today, she, Nicole Cooke and Fabiana Luperini had won it three times each
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) knows he can do well in this race as he finished fourth in 2008. "You always hope for more. If you can save energy and hit the Mur with the first riders then you have a good chance. It's a fair race because only the strongest riders can win it. The first bit of the Mur is hard for me and I have to try and hold the wheels. The second bit suits me better as everybody's on their limit, then it's about persistence," Gesink said.
Saxo Bank has put all of their team minus Contador on the front, Leopard committing two or three riders. BMC, Lampre and Rabo are just on the fringes, keeping their leaders out of trouble and near the front.
News in that Dan Martin has also been taken to hospital.
Still moving along nicely these four riders up the road. The conditions should mean we hit the Mur with a large group on the third and final time up. That should make for exciting racing.
Sky, meanwhile, have moved someone to the front to help with the chase. Gerrans going well, he'll be looking for another big performance.
I was at the Sky service course last month and the mechanics were making up his fifth road bike of the season - he'd crashed four times already this season but he's put that and last season's no-show behind him.
Leopards all huddling together just behind the Saxo train, Contador looking comfortable.
Another Sky rider on the front. The gap still at 8:56 - 66km to go.
8:27, 63km to go.
farizkyrahman Farizky Rahman
@dnlbenson It is still a gap from 9'04" between the leaders and the peloton with 67 km left. Did the peloton give them too much advantage?
Sam Dansie thinks the bunch need to bring back 8 seconds per km if they're going to catch the break. That's possible...
Contador said this morning that he was ill, down with a cold, but he's got all his men on the front at the moment. What a bluffer.
The gap comes down and it's now 7:28. Safe the say that the bunch have this under control at the moment.
Nuyens on the front, taking a big turn for Saxo Bank. They've still got to hit the Mur for a second time.
That could be crucial for the break but because they'll want to keep the pace high but they'll want to keep together for as long as they can.
Euskatel saving their riders at the moment which is smart racing but in Sanchez and Anton they've got two riders capable of at least making the podium.
Up the road the gap continues to come down. It's 6:42
Farrand was at the start this morning and took these images.
Nuyens again on the front driving things along for the Saxo Bank riders. Van den Broeck coming back to the bunch. He must have had a problem with his bike. He's lost a lot of ground and he's got no teammates with him.
6:11 now. Nuyens doing a great job for Contador.
Riders being shelled out the back of the bunch all because of Nuyens setting the pace on the front.
And up the road the leaders are starting to split up.
They're coming back together but that last climb took it out of them.
Voigt has seen what Nuyens has done and comes to the front.
The German on the front, Nuyens slips in behind him. Lets see how much time is gained back.
All strung out, four climbs remaining. The four leaders are still working well together but their advantage is down to 4:54.
So we have 45km to race and the gap is 4:50.
The bunch is going full gas, all strung out and a few gaps creeping into the field.
Maciej Paterski (Liquigas-Cannondale), Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen – Mercator), Maxime Vantomme (Katusha Team) and Matti Helminen (Landbouwkrediet).
Peloton at 4:34
Coming up to the next climb and a lot of riders are trying to move to the front, all of that aids the chase and the gap is under 4:30.
Cunego has crashed at the back of the bunch.
Meanwhile Scarponi is on the attack in Trentino, we're hearing.
Onto the climb and Saxo move up to the front again.
No attacks from the bunch, they're simply going to fast.
Cunego has some teammates, in fact his entire team with him. They've got to help him back to the bunch as quickly as possible.
Samuel Sanchez is moving up in the peloton. This morning the Spaniard told Cyclingnews he was keen to do well. "For some reason the Amstel isn't my thing. The Flèche shoulde be better. Back in 2006 I finished second behind Valverde. It suits me better, just like Liège."
Monfort does a big turn and then pulls off. That's his job done. Kardi goes on the attack. Not sure that's the right thing to do at the moment but there you go. The gap is 3 minutes.
Still no sign as to whether Cunego has made it back, as an Astana rider attacks. Grivko, in fact.
Kardi still on the attack but all alone. Grivko has been joined by a Garmin-Cervelo rider.
It looks like Cunego has made it back to the main field.
Kadri caught, the gap down to 2:24 and Vacan and Skil moving up and doing some work, Cofidis and Sky are also up there.
And Lotto move up and hit the front.
The entire team are on the front. Katusha hiding there or there abouts.
The leaders starting to split, they're tiring out there in the sun as Lotto crank up the pressure.
Paterski setting the pace on the Mur, the gap down to 2;14
onto the steepest section of the climb, the crowds huge.
Helminen starting to really struggle. he should make it back once he gets over the top.
Lotto leading up the climb, Gilbert at the front
just over 30km of racing left the gap is coming down, it's under 2 minutes.
A Skil rider puts in a little dig but he's going no where.
Riders really, really suffering at the back of the bunch.
Astana on the attack again and it's Enrico Gasparotto and Van Garderen who have broken clear. That's an interesting move. Uran and Kolobnev also there.
That's very interesting little group. Saxo and Leopard dont have a man there so the onus will be on them to chase again. What do they have left in the tank?
That Kolobnev, Gaspo, Van Garderen, Lovkivst group is pretty handy. They could pose a huge threat to the men in the main bunch.
These riders need to work if they're going to make it. They've got around ten seconds on the bunch.
Kolobnev not doing any work though. Not surprising really.
Garmin-Cervelo have moved up and they'll be looking to bring it all back together before the final climb.
Golas on the attack, trying to get to the Kolobnev group.
kolobnev finally takes a turn on the front, Lotto doing most of the work back in the bunch.
Maciej Paterski (Liquigas-Cannondale), Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen – Mercator), Maxime Vantomme (Katusha Team) and Matti Helminen (Landbouwkrediet).
Yury Trofimov (Katusha). Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad). Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar). Thomas Lövkvist (Sky). Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Pro Team Astana.
Peloton at 55 seconds
Only 34 seconds between the leaders and bunch, two climbs to go and 21km of racing.
Gesink close to the front, Contador and Gilbert too.
The two breaks have merged and have a gap of 19 seconds on the main field.
This will probably all come back together as Lotto continue to do all the work. Monfort up there, Rabobank too.
Cunego has made it back and is near the front too.
Lovkvist has attacked from the group and he's got a small gap. Movistar has marked him.
18 seconds the gap. Not much cohesion in the break it must be said.
The two leaders are working well though and they're leading the race as we head to the final 12km of the race. they've got 23 seconds on the bunch.
Just 13 to go and now Katusha move up to the front. Di Luca up there, Rodrguez and Ivanov too.
Euskatel, Leopard and saxo try a little move but the Russians bring it back.
Di Luca on the front, setting the pace as the two ahead carry on with their attack. They've still got a gap
Tony Martin, HTC is on the front, the gap to his ex teammate is 15 seconds so he needs to bring it back together, as Quick Step attack.
Dries Devenyns is trying to make it to the leaders.
10km to go and the big favourites are moving up. it's all getting rather tense in the bunch.
It's all going to come back for the final climb, isn't it?
11 seconds the gap. The final climb up the Mur to come.
Di Luca on the front still, driving the pace. The Quick Step rider is back so we have two leaders still up the road.
Up ahead the Swede is getting dropped!
Kiryienka wont last much longer. As Pineau goes
Pineau has a gap and has a Vacan rider with him.
Euskatel and Lotto on the front with Katusha.
Marcato is with Pineau but it's the frenchman setting the pace.
Jerome Pineau (Quick Step) and Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil)
Peloton at ?
five to go as leopard set the pace and Andy Schleck is leading the chase, clearly working for Frank, here.
The two men have 19 second. not sure that will be enough before the final climb.
Tankink on the front for Rabo now
Cunego moving up as well. can he do anything after his crash? Gilbert moving up.
Just two km to go and the gap is 17 seconds.
Gerrans moving up.
They cant mess around if they want to catch them as the leaders hit the climb.
Schleck F moving up., leaders are now caught.
F Schleck leads, gilbert in third wheel
1km to go.
Shack up there too now.
Gilbert takes over and katusha all around him.
Can he hang on 150 to go
he's got ages to celebrate.
Rodriguez takes second, with Sanchez in third.
There was no answer to Gilbert when he put the hammer down. He set the pace, a garmin rider attacked and gilbert just used it as a launch-pad for his main move.
rodriquez, the Schlecks, Vino, Contador, they just had no answer.
Gilbert looked back, just after his move but there was no response. He had time to look back again and had enough time to celebrate as he crossed the line.
Andy Schleck took fourth, Frank 7th, Le Mevel in 9th.
1 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
2 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team
3 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
4 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
5 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
6 Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
7 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
8 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team
9 Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Team Garmin-Cervelo
10 Paul Martens (Ger) Rabobank Cycling Team
Thanks for joining us for today's live coverage. All eyes will turn to Sunday and Liege as Gilbert looks to go for the hat-trick.