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Preview: Looking for a favorite for the Wallonne arrow

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Apr. 17, 2012



MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) — Good thing for second chances.

Just about everyone except Enrico Gasparotto left Amstel Gold Race over the weekend with a bad taste in their mouth.

Óscar Freire said he needed the finish line to be 100 meters shorter. Jelle Vanendert still cannot figure out how he lost to the Italian.

Behind Freire’s bold run, the Spanish armada sunk Sunday like a rock against the cold northerly winds. Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez were pedaling squares up the Cauberg. Only Samuel Sánchez rode into the top 10.

Rabobank fell flat on their faces Sunday and will need to pull something out of the hat this week to salvage their pride and chase the Dutch press off their tail.

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Of all the protagonists, it was two-time defending champion Philippe Gilbert who left Valkenburg with a smile on his face despite not winning. At least he was in the hunt for a major win for the first time all season, something that only fueled his competitive juices.

All those collective frustrations and unsettled scores will be centered on Wednesday’s La Flèche Wallonne, the midweek semi-classic sandwiched between Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Searching for a favorite

Wednesday’s 76th running of the “arrow of Wallonne” is a race without a clear favorite.

There are, however, some significant names on the “Missing in Action” list. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), winner in 2010, pulled out of the remainder of Ardennes week on Monday with a sinus infection.

Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) — who earned a well-deserved podium Sunday with third after lighting up the spring classics — will take a break until the Tour of California.

Sánchez will also sit out Flèche, opening the door for Euskaltel-Euskadi teammate Igor Antón, who was fourth last year. Ditto that plan for Milan-San Remo champ Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD), who will both cool their jets Wednesday in hopes of blasting off Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The past two years, Gilbert has been the favorite, but it’s been his form that’s been MIA all spring. Freire’s long-distance flier probably scuttled a Gilbert three-peat on Sunday at AGR. The move forced BMC Racing to chase, with Greg van Avermaet burying himself for Gilbert, and leaving the man himself to do his fair share of effort, likely taking the edge out of his legs in the final kick up the Cauberg.

“It gives me confidence for the next races. Yes, I’ll be ready for Liège, even if it’s a different type of race than Amstel,” Gilbert said Sunday. “I was never in panic in the last weeks because I knew my best form would come one day.”

Rodríguez and Valverde are both hoping for warmer weather Wednesday. Unfortunately for “Purito,” forecasters are calling for highs in the low 50s Fahrenheit and a 70-percent chance of rain. That’s still better than what one pundit described as the Amstel “Cold” Race, as a chilling northerly wind blasted the Limburg on Sunday.

The pint-sized Rodríguez is the top favorite behind Gilbert and in fact, he has twice been runner-up atop the Mur de Huy. Valverde, meanwhile, will ride Wednesday, but his real goal is further ahead on Sunday.

“I entered with the front group at the Cauberg, so that’s a good sign. The cold and the distance wore me down and I didn’t have my best legs,” Valverde said. “I will race Wednesday with tranquility. The real goal is Sunday.”

Garmin-Barracuda rode a great race Sunday and probably deserved better than Fabian Wegmann’s eighth place. Wegmann, Thomas Dekker and Ryder Hesjedal all hit the Cauberg in the front group after Alex Howes and Raymond Kreder rode in the day’s main breakaway.

“I think we will be coming up for the rest of the week. It’s a good sign for the first day to have those kinds of numbers up front,” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “I just didn’t have the real snap at the end. This by far is my longest race day. I haven’t gotten close to 200-plus all season. I will keep building this week. We rode really well. We didn’t get the podium but it’s encouraging for the rest of the week. We had two guys in the main break and three guys in the final in the front group.”

The Schleck brothers will be back for RadioShack-Nissan and promise to liven up the race. They are typically on the sharp end of the action, laying down attacks to soften up the bunch before the final run up the Mur de Huy.

“Andy was ok on Sunday because he has been missing some racing. He will be better this week as it goes on,” RadioShack sport director Kim Andersen told VeloNews. “And Frank, he too is getting better. Flèche is a race he can win if he has the legs. Why not?”

It’s Rabobank that will likely have more pressure than anyone to make up for what many saw as a disappointing race Sunday. Bauke Mollema squeaked into the top 10, but the team was roasted in the Monday papers in Holland for riding with less-than-aggressive tactics. Following the wheels rarely leads to victory in the Ardennes.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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