After relinquishing their stranglehold on the Flèche Wallonne title to Alejandro Valverde last season, Katusha are hoping that they can take it back with Joaquim Rodríguez. The 2012 champion will lead the team on Wednesday and, despite a disappointing result at the Amstel Gold Race last weekend, the team have every confidence that he can be in the mix on the Mur de Huy.
"We know that he is one of the favourites for the race. We also have to respect the others who have a chance to win but I hope that we can be fighting for it tomorrow," Katusha directeur sportif José Azevedo told Cyclingnews. "He’s shown that he’s in good shape and we are confident in him for this race. It is a race that suits him well, he won it three years ago and we believe that he has a chance."
Rodriguez had a tricky start to the Ardennes at Amstel and scenes of 2014 must have flashed in his mind as he got caught up behind two crashes on the narrow roads. Fortunately for the Spaniard, he stayed on his bike but he lost ground on the peloton as he navigated his way around the incidents, forcing him to waste energy by chasing on. The efforts showed when it came to the crunch on the Cauberg but Azevedo believes that Rodríguez would have struggled anyway in the sprint for the line.
"He only came back to the front group after 10 or 15 kilometres and after all this effort he paid for it in the final. He was in the front group in the final and he started to make up positions but he paid for his efforts," explained Azevedo. "For him, Amstel is an important race and we try our best but we knew that it is not the kind of race for our kind of riders. This kind of parcours is difficult for us we don’t have riders for explosive, small climbs and also sprinters."
This year’s course provides a new challenge for the peloton with the addition of a climb much closer to the final ascent of the Mur de Huy. Like many of the other teams, Katusha were keen to see what they would face on Wednesday and did a short recon of the final kilometres. For some it was the first time that they’d ever ridden on cobbles, although it was for only a few metres. Pavé aside, the riders left pleased with the new addition.
"They are happy because for us as a team, in theory, this climb is better," said Azevedo. "It’s a steep climb, it’s hard and it’s close to the final. I think it’s going to change the race to other years where everybody waited on the other climbs before Huy. I think that this climb will do a big selection for the final.
"When you approach the climb you come on a big road, you go left onto a small road and then left again and you have a small part with cobble stones and a railway. I think that this is going to be important because you need to be in front. It’s one kilometre very steep and if you start the climb in the back then you are going to pay for your efforts."
Katusha also have another former Flèche winner in the midst with Daniel Moreno, who took the title in 2013 and provides a second option for the team.