Tomorrow sees the middle race of Ardennes Week, the Fleche Wallonne, and never mind the riders, we know that a fair few players of our Fantasy Cycling competition emerged battered and bruised from Sunday’s opener, the Amstel Gold Race. Many of you (and us in the road.cc office) had scores comparable to those that Greek entries typically get from Turkey in Eurovision, and vice-versa; a big fat nul points, that is. Undeterred, we’re gluttons for more punishment and are busy picking our teams for tomorrow. Here’s our brief preview to the race.
First raced in 1936, Fleche Wallonne, like the Amstel Gold Race, features a tough uphill finish in the shape of the Mur de Huy, negotiated three times during the 194km parcours (you can download the route map below) that makes it the shortest race in the Ardennes trilogy, which will be completed on Sunday by Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Last year, local hero Philippe Gilbert, then racing for Omega Pharma-Lotto, triumphed in what would be the second leg of his Ardennes hat-trick, making him only the second man to win all three races in the same season, the other being Davide Rebellin in 2004.
The Italian is one of the most successful riders in the race’s history, his three victories putting him on a par with compatriot Moreno Argentin as well as Belgium’s Eddy Merckx and Marcel Kint, although Rebellin’s achievement has since been overshadowed by his positive test for CERA at the 2008 Olympics, which saw him stripped of the silver medal he had won in the road race at Beijing.
In our Amstel Gold Race preview, we made the point that it is a notoriously difficult race to predict, and Sunday’s events – plus the Fantasy Cycling scores afterwards – certainly bore that out.
The good news is that Fleche Wallonne tends to bring out the best in a number of riders, particularly Grand Tour GC contenders or strong puncheurs able to target and pull off wins in stages with the toughest finishes, with a number of such men featuring regularly in the top ten in recent years.
The bad news, unfortunately, is that for a variety of reasons, many of those riders are out of this year’s Fleche Wallonne, or have yet to prove that they are riding into the peak of their form so far this season.
In the former category are Rebellin, who attempted a brief comeback with UCI Continental team Miche-Guerciotti last year but has since disappeared from view, 2010 winner Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, who abandoned midway through Amstel Gold and is now back home in Switzerland being treated for a sinus problem, and 2005 victor Danilo Di Luca, whose Acqua & Sapone team didn’t get an invite.
Also missing is Samuel Sanchez, previously second, third and fourth here, and seventh in Amstel Gold at the weekend, with Igor Anton instead leading the challenge for Euskaltel-Euskadi.
Both Schleck brothers have regularly figured in the top ten in the past, but neither Andy, second in 2009, nor Frank, fourth in 2006 neither looked convincing for RadioShack-Nissan Trek last weekend. The most successful Luxembourg rider in this race, coincidentally, is 2008 winner, and past runner-up Kim Kirchen, subsequently forced to retire due to a heart problem.
Damiano Cunego has twice been on the podium here, but the Italian, who crashed in the finale of Amstel Gold, is out of Fleche Wallonne, and instead it’s a pair of Spaniards who may provide the best bankers for tomorrow’s race – 2006 winner Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, and runner-up in the past two editions, Joaquin Rodriguez.
Both finished just outside the top 20 on Sunday; the bookies make Rodriguez favourite for Fleche Wallonne, ahead of Sunday’s runner-up, Jelle Vanendert of Lotto Belisol, and BMC Racing’s Gilbert, whose pursuit of Katusha’s Oscar Freire up the Cauberg on Sunday and eventual sixth place suggests he is getting back towards last year’s form, although not perhaps back to his peak yet.
Amstel Gold surprise winner Enrico Gasparotto of Astana may find back-to-back wins in the Ardennes beyond him but is bound to feature in many people’s picks for a top 20 place.
Other riders singled out by race organisers ASO as potentially challenging for honours tomorrow include GreenEdge’s Michael Albasini, the Lotto Belisol pair of Gianni Meersman and Jurgen Van den Broeck, Saxo Bank’s Karsten Kroon, the Garmin-Barracuda pair of Christophe Le Mevel and Ryder Hesjedal, Team Sky’s Rigoberto Uran and Liquigas-Cannondale’s Vincenzo Nibali.
Also highlighted are three Dutch riders – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema, plus Vacansoleil-DCM’s Thomas De Gendt.
If you were one of those Fantasy Cycling players who ended up with zero points on Sunday, take comfort in the fact that it will be impossible to do worse tomorrow. Well, unless you use more than four transfers and risk getting a negative score due to the 20-point or more penalty you'll incur, that is…
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.