HUY, Belgium (AFP) — Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) finally took the Flèche Wallonne win he had missed two years running on Wednesday.
Rodríguez attacked early on the Mur de Huy finish climb and rode clear of Michael Albasini (GreenEdge) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), who finished second and third, respectively.
For Rodriguez this was a fitting victory, as he had taken second place in the last two editions of the Ardennes event, which comes in the middle of last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race and Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic.
The Catalan-born rider claimed his first classic at the age of 32 and he did it with four seconds to spare over Albasini.
“This is my most cherished victory, for me it’s my best day ever,” said Rodriguez.
He added: “I am a real fan of the classics. I’ve had so many good finishes but I was still waiting to win one.”
Albasini, a surprise overall winner at the Volta a Catalunya this spring, said his podium ride at Flèche would was a boon ahead of Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I was right up there for second place,” he said. “This gives me a lot of confidence for Liège. Me and Gerrans will be co-captains for LBL. I am on really good form right now.”
“Rodriguez is the deserving winner — his team assumed the work,” said Gilbert.
As well as his runner-up spots at Flèche, Rodriguez has also proved his classics mettle by taking second in the 2011 Amstel Gold Race and second in the 2009 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Rodriguez is the third Spaniard to win the Flèche after Igor Astarloa in 2003 and Alejandro Valverde three years later.
With intermittent rain making conditions tricky, the race was marked by a long breakaway launched by Dirk Bellemakers (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) and Anthony Roux (FJD-BigMat) one hour into the race.
With less than 10km to go it was the turn of Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) and Norway’s Lars-Peter Nordhaug (Sky) to go for broke. This duo were in turn swept aside in the chase led by the Lotto and Katusha teams at the base of the Mur.
“I tried to make it interesting,” said Hesjedal. “I was feeling really good on the climbs and decided to attack, in part to give the other guys (on Garmin-Barracuda) a chance to sit in. I felt really good on the Mur, but I spent a lot of energy on the flats. We had very strong headwinds, but I feel good for Sunday. Liège is better for me anyway and I am feeling strong, so we’ll see.”
Ordinarily a favorite to win at Flèche and Liège, Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) was unable to live with the closing pace and came in 81st, almost 2:30 adrift.
Gilbert, meanwhile, fancied his chances in Sunday’s final spring classic, which he won in 2011.
“The weather is playing in my favor. I like the cold, I can put up with it better than the Spaniards and Italians, who are used to the heat,” he said. “Bad weather can be my ally.”