World Champion Cadel Evans (BMC) timed it just right to win Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday after an aggressive race that had most of the pre-race favorites — including Astana’s Alberto Contador — in contention until the final charge up the Mur de Huy.
Contador looked to have the win in the bag when he clawed his way past Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) with 300 meters to go, but Evans used his experience and a pre-race course preview to good use and darted ahead for his win wearing the rainbow jersey. Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha) also slipped ahead of Contador, who crossed the line third.
“Even though I’ve raced here several times, I never did a recon before a Flèche. (BMC sport director) John Lelangue took us out and I saw the climb in a different light and I realized that I was always attacking too soon before,” Evans said. “I was in good position on the mur and waited to attack in the final 100 meters.”
Evans became the first Australian to win the race in the event’s 74-year history and said wearing the rainbow jersey gave him extra legs. Evans is the fifth rider wearing the rainbow jersey to win Fleche. Others were Ferdi Kubler (1952), Rik Van Steenbergen (1958), Eddy Merckx (1972) and Claude Criquielion (1985).
“To race in the rainbow jersey is an honor and to win is even better. I’ve been second before, so to finally win is great,” he said. “I feel liberated with the rainbow jersey. It’s a special honor to ride with the rainbow jersey on my shoulders and the goal this season is to honor the rainbow jersey.”
In contrast to 2008 when he went for broke too early on the final exhausting climb Evans on this occasion timed his attack to perfection. Evans also credited his dynamic performance down to a change in his training program.
“As I’m riding in the Giro (Tour of Italy) I’ve had a different approach. I’m happy with my progress, but I can still improve further,” said Evans, whose stocks rises ahead of Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. “That’s that negative side to my victory – now everybody’s going to be watching out for me.”
Contador, who took a train and drove up from Spain after winning last week’s Vuelta a Castilla y León, was satisfied with his showing in the Belgium classic in just his third career start.
“I’m happy enough even if I’d preferred to have won the race. I’m in good shape ahead of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege (on Sunday) but to win there you really need to know the circuit,” he said. “It would be fantastic to win it, for me it would be like winning a big tour event because I’m not a classic specialist.”
A big group hit the base of the 1.3km Mur de Huy for the final assault, but just like every year at Flèche, the legs and the timing had to be perfect to be able to contend for victory.
Some of the other pre-race favorites were in the hunt, but didn’t quite have the explosive power to crank up the 20-pecent grades of the Mur. Philippe Gilbert, winner at Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, was sixth while Andy Schleck was ninth.
Chris Horner (RadioShack), hot off his overall victory at the Vuelta al País Vasco, was seventh and Ryder Hesjedal, runner-up at Amstel Gold, looped across the line in 10th.
Gilbert, like many others, was already looking ahead to Sunday’s clash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“Just to be in the first 10 was a good result. I tried to be at the front with the favorites, but it wasn’t enough on the final climb,” he said. “I will be ready Sunday, but it won’t be just me. The Schleck brothers, who were phenomenal today, Evans, Contador and Valverde will be there as well.”
The early break
The 198km race got underway in cool, gray conditions and it took nearly 50km before the first real breakaway got established. The five-man group that came together was away for much of the day: David Loosli (Lampre), Dimitri Champion (Ag2r), Benjamin Gourgue (Landbouwkrediet), Stéphane Auge (Cofidis) and Giuseppe Palumbo (Aqua e Sapone).
The five built a lead of over five minutes, and at the 120km mark, a group of seven, including Saxo Bank’s Jens Voigt and Laurent Didier, took off in pursuit, but was not able to bridge. The lead five were slowly but steadily brought back by the peloton led by Katusha and Caisse d’Epargne as the race entered the finishing circuits and was caught just before the second ascent of the Mur de Huy.
On the final finish circuit, a group of four broke away and built a roughly 20-second lead. Frank Schleck (Saxo), Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), David Loosli (Lampre) and Bram Tankink (Rabobank) took off just before the Côte d’Ereffe.
Katusha’s Sergie Ivanov took off in pursuit while Contador’s team kept the pace fast in the peloton. Ivanov was soon joined by Garmin-Transition’s Ryder Hesjedal, in top form following his second place at Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race.
But the pair were soon reeled in by the Astana-led bunch, and entering the final 8km, the gap to the four leaders was still about 20 seconds and then fell quickly as the star-studded chase smelled blood; the front of the peloton was intact entering the tricky final 4 kilometers.
Katusha continued to launch attacks, and the team’s Alexander Kolobnev got a significant gap with 3k to go, while Euskaltel drove the front of the field and Alejandro Valverde tried to bridge. The group came back together with 1k to go, and it was every man for himself at the base of the Mur.
RadioShack’s Andreas Kloden took a dig first and got a gap, then Contador took off and looked to be about to launch one of his trademark uphill surges when Evans neutralized the Tour de France champ with a perfectly timed-attack, coming free with just 100 meters to go.
It was Evans’ first win since taking the rainbow jersey and the first major win this year for the BMC squad. Evans was second at Fleche Wallone in 2008 and fifth last year.
Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez passed Contador for the second spot and Contador was third.