Amstel contenders set for another Ardennes battle

Among the 198 riders from the 25 teams taking part in the 2012 Fleche Wallonne, the names on start sheet that catch the eye as pre-race favourites are fundamentally the same as those who ended up in the finale of last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. Though there are a couple of significant absences.

There’s no Peter Sagan for Liquigas and Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler has decided to spend some time at home before returning for Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday. Sammy Sanchez is allowing Euskaltel’s lesser lights at a chance to show off their climbing chops and Simon Gerrans (20th in Holland) is giving the Fleche Wallonne a miss. In total, out of the top 20 in the Amstel Gold race, five riders are missing from the Fleche Wallonne start list. The fifth missing man is Elia Favilli of Farnese Vini, whose team was not invited to ride by the race organisers, ASO. And Damiano Cunego (Lampre), unlucky to be caught up in a crash in the final meters of the Dutch race, is also sitting this one out.

In addition, with Cadel Evans deciding that his form and his health weren’t worth risking in the Fleche Wallonne (or Liege-Bastogne-Liege), it means that his BMC teammate, Philippe Gilbert will, more than ever, be leading the line in the 2012 Fleche Wallonne. The Belgian will be depending on Greg van Avermaet, who did such a sterling job in the finale of the Amstel Gold Race to do the same job again, while Tejay Van Garderen will also have his workload increased.

In truth, Evans didn’t figure significantly in the Amstel, such was the fragility of his form, so his absence is unlikely to have much of an impact on Gilbert’s race plans for the 194km Fleche Wallonne anyway.

It’s informative that pundits are happy to cite the name of Gilbert as a probably major player in the Fleche, since, prior to his gutsy sixth place in Sunday’s Amstel Gold race, he appeared to be struggling to cope with the expectations weighing on his shoulders after his astonishing run of wins last Spring.

In light of the various absences, it looks like Gilbert will have to cope with the pressure of being a man more marked than usual, with even more pressure than before – he’s the French speaking Belgian national champion on what truly is ‘home’ soil in a race he won last year. And, since ‘home field’ advantage must count for something, then the rider who finished a frustrated second in Holland, Lotto’s Jelle Vanendert, must also figure among the riders expected to make the final selection tackling the last of the three ascents of the Mur of Huy.

Gilbert won the race last year ahead of Joaquim Rodriguez and (absent this year) Samuel Sanchez. Given Rodriguez’s discreet though not spectacular result (24th at 22 seconds, the same gap as Alejandro Valverde (22nd) at the Amstel, it could well be that the steeper finish on the Mur of Huy will suit the Spaniard better than that of the extended, grinding effort up to the finish line of the Amstel.

And finally, of course, there is the surprise winner of the Amstel Gold, Enrico Gasparotto of Astana. For many observers, Gasparotto won through cunning and experience more than outright form and, on the Mur, it’s unlikely that his presence in the finale will go unmarked. The winner? Who knows. But it would be a real shock if there wasn’t a Belgian on the podium – but which one?

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