After two second places in the last two editions, Joaquím Rodríguez has finally claimed victory in La Flèche Wallone, blasting away 400 metres from the line for a superb solo win on the summit of the Mur de Huy. Second was Switzerland’s Michael Albasini and third last year’s winner, Philippe Gilbert of Belgium.A former leader of the Vuelta a España and stage winner of the Tour de France, Rodríguez watched and waited on the final ascent, shadowing Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE). A counter-attack by Gilbert (BMC) failed to work out, and Rodríguez could claim his first ever major Classic, as well as Spain’s third victory in Fleche Wallone in less than ten years. For Albasini, this was his best result in a major Classic, whilst after his sixth place in Amstel, Gilbert confirmed again that he was on the way back up.
Velits and Urán Hit The Deck
Heavy, frequent rainshowers and gusting winds made for a nervous 76th edition of La Flèche Wallone, where the attackers had real problems going clear right from the start. A first duo of breakaways, Hovelynck (LAN) and Habeaux (ACC) tried to attack early on, but were retaken by the bunch at km 22. Ratto (LIQ) and Christensen (SAX) who then went clear didn’t have it much easier, particularly after Ratto punctured at km 31. Shortly beforehand, Martin Velits (OPQ) and Uran (SKY) had crashed, causing the bunch to split apart. Katusha was working hard behind, and after 49 kilometres another crash saw Jurgen Van De Walle (LTB) forced to abandon.
Bellemakers and Roux move ahead
Christensen was caught shortly afterwards, and at km 55 following a frantic first hour Dirk Bellemakers (LAN) and Anthony Roux (FDJ) went clear. Sjef De Wilde (ACC) tried to get across and was still between the two race leaders and the bunch when the race went over the Mur de Huy for the first time at km 70.5. At that point, Bellemakers and Roux had 2-25 on De Wilde, who sat up shortly afterwards, and 3-25 on the bunch.
By km 80, the gap for Bellemakers and Roux was over five minutes and still climbing, and it reached a maximum of 7-10 soon afterwards, at km 88, before Katusha and Lotto-
Bellisol started to chase behind.
Shortly before Katusha and Bellisol began their pursuit, Armee (TSV) attacked and began a lone chase of the two leaders that continued as the race passed its half way at km 97. With 84 kilometres left to race, Armee was at 3-35, with the bunch steadily regaining ground at 4-45. Thirty kilometres later at the summit of the Cote de Groyenne (53km to the finish), Armee was at 2-35 and the bunch, which had eased up chasing slightly, at 3-20.
Armee Surrenders-Andy Attacks
Around six kilometres further on, Armee sat up and was caught by the bunch, leaving the two race leaders, Bellemakers and Roux, out in front.
47 kilometres from the finish, just at the summti of the Cote de Bohisseau, Andy Schleck (RNT) launched a surprise attack with Dimitri Fofonov (AST) and Yuri Trofimov (KAT) on his wheel. However, it never gained more than 20 seconds and Schleck, seeing that the attack wouldn’t work, sat up.
With just 1-15 advantage when the race reached the foot of the Mur for a second time, the two long-term attackers Bellemakers and Roux, boldly kept going nonetheless. After the summit, Giovanni Visconti (MOV) and Tom Slagter (RAB) launched a powerful counter attack, bridged across to Bellemakers and Roux around 18 kilometres from the finish but by km 178 the leading four were brought back - and a new race started.
An attack by Ryder Hesjedal (GRM) and Lars-Petter Nordhaug (SKY) on the short but steep Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet earned the duo an advantage of 12 seconds with three kilometres to go. Nordhaug and Hesjedal were still ahead as they went under the flamme rouge banner of the last kilometre, but after a brief attack by Nordhaug and a strong counter-move by Hesjedal, the duo were reeled in. At which point, Joaquim Rodríguez made his dramatic attack, 400 metres from the line...
At long last, Joaquim Rodríguez has the major Classic he was looking for in the bag, and the 32-year-old Spaniard said he believed he could finally crack open the champagne in Fleche Wallone thanks to his using the same strategy as a certain Philippe Gilbert.
“I attacked in exactly the same spot on the Mur de Huy as Gilbert last year,” said the Katusha rider, who made his move 400 metres from the finish line for an impressive solo win. “I knew deep down that this was the right place, so even if I had been worried that it was a bit too far out, I talked myself into doing it.”
“About 50 kilometres from the finish, I began to think that this really could be my day, I told the team that was the case, and I decided to go all out for the win on the Mur.”
“It’s a huge, huge win for me. Finishing second so many times in so many different Classics, and finally being able to win is a totally different story. And I’m not like a lot of Spaniards, for me the Classics are more important than stage races. This Ardennes week is my highpoint of the year, and this is a win I badly wanted."
So what made the difference between all those years of near-misses and a victory in Fleche Wallone? For example, was Rodriguez stronger now than Belgian favourite Gilbert, who made a devastating attack on the Mur de Huy last April, or was Gilbert not as strong as last year?
“The latter,” Rodríguez answered, “that’s for sure. Last year he was impossible to beat. This time round it’s a different story, but we can see that his form is steadily improving. We can’t rule him out for Sunday and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.”
As for what this victory meant to him after so many second and third places in the major Classics, Rodríguez said the difference was “enormous.” “This is not like in Formula One where a third or fourth place is almost as important as winning. In cycling we only celebrate victories and that’s why I had to change teams, moving on to Katusha, because I needed a chance to win big races and I finally got what I was looking for in that team."
“Maybe the other difference between this year and the last, too, is that Gilbert is beatable. Without him there in 2011, perhaps I’d already have won Flèche or Amstel.”
As for his chances in La Doyenne on Sunday, Rodríguez -second in Liege in 2009 - says he is determined to go all out for the win, but points out that he’s not the only rider in his team with chances in the Ardennes ’Monument’. Oscar Freire, fourth in Amstel Gold Race, is one possible card for the Russian team to play, and so, too, is another Spanish team-mate Dani Moreno. But after such a convincing victory in Flèche Wallone, Rodriguez will surely be dreaming of imitating Gilbert once again -and winning in Liege this Sunday - too.
1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain - KAT)
2. Michael Albasini (Switzerland - GEC)
3. Philippe Gilbert (Belgium - BMC)
4. Jelle Vanendert (Belgium - LTB)
5. Robert Kiserlovski (Croatia - AST)
That’s Spain’s third win in the Fleche Wallone, and Rodriguez first big Classic
Rodriguez wins, Albasini second, Gilbert third
Rodriguez finally wins after two second places on the Mur