Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez bounced back from a disappointing Classics campaign so far to win La Flèche Wallonne. In a dominating performance the 2010 and 2011 runner-up rode away from everyone on the final ascent of the Mur de Huy to win by four seconds. GreenEDGE’s Michael Albasini continued his superb form in second place, with last year’s winner Philippe Gilbert third.
A damp start
It was a messy start to the race in damp conditions, with numerous crashes claiming a few riders early on, and even splitting the peloton in half. Fortunately, as the race wended its way towards Huy the conditions improved and the average speed ramped up, with the riders slipping off rain jackets and sliding down arm warmers.
The day’s breakaway was made up of just two riders: Anthony Roux from FDJ and Landbouwkrediet’s Dirk Bellemakers. A counter-attack followed from Topsport Vlaanderen’s Sander Armee, although he was never able to bridge the gap before being caught with under 50km remaining.
An intriguing attack from Radioshack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck went with 42km to the line, likely in support of his teammate and brother Frank. He took Katusha’s Yuri Trofimov with him, with Astana’s Dmitry Fofonov later joining the duo floating between the leaders and the peloton. However, the peloton understandably weren’t overly keen on letting such a capable trio go, and they were reeled in with 30km remaining.
Five kilometres later, the sky began to turn again. The clouds went black, glinting menacingly off the slippery surface. Sure enough, on the terrifying descent down the second climb of the Mur de Huy, Robinson Chalapud from Colombia-Coldeportes hit the ground hard, fortunately taking no one else with him.
The late counters
Meanwhile, Roux and Bellemakers’ lead was down to mere seconds, with moves from Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti and Rabobank’s Tom Slagter in pursuit of the lead duo. They eventually bridged the gap on the Côte d’Arrey with just 15km remaining. On the same climb, Frank Schleck suffered great misfortune in sustaining a mechanical, dropping him to the back of the bunch.
Unfortunately it was too little too late for Visconti and Slagter, with the peloton strung out at the front, charging towards the final climb of the Mur, lurking under the leaden skies like a scene from an apocalyptic film. [So, not Kung Fu Panda 2, then? – Ed]
Inside the final 10km Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) continued his Hoogerland-esque attacking already shown in this year’s Classics, with Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal partnering the Kazakh in a bid for freedom. But while Iglinsky didn’t have enough to stay away, Sky’s Lars Petter Nordhaug did. The Norwegian worked with Hesjedal to open up a gap of 12 seconds as they descended towards the Mur. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, but was it shining on the leading pair?
The torturous ascent
They began the Mur with Hesjedal dragging his partner up the climb, but with the duo beginning to fade it became clear that they would be swamped by the riders behind. It appeared that GreenEDGE’s Michael Albasini was in pole position to continue his impressive season, with Philippe Gilbert and Lotto-Belisol’s Jelle Vanendert also in close proximity.
However, out of nowhere fired Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, with El Purito attacking and jumping away from the rest in imperious fashion. It was an extraordinary move, with Albasini and Gilbert trickling in fully four seconds behind and rounding out the podium places in second and third respectively.
Having finished second in this race in each of the last two years, as well as having been runner-up previously at both Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Rodriguez was understandably effusive about having finally sealed his first Classic:
This is the most beautiful of all my victories, the most incredible and most desired. I am a lover of the Classics. I got so many beautiful places without ever winning. Today is the happiest day of my life.
This may have looked easy, but it was not. Instead, I had to be very careful and very attentive. This is what happened on the Mur, but also throughout the day, where my teammates did a remarkable job.
Gilbert agreed that the best man (and team) had won:
Rodriguez is the deserving winner — his team assumed the work.
It was a superb victory for Rodriguez, but also one that Katusha deserved for their efforts throughout the day. Before the race, Gilbert said that despite Rodriguez’s disappointing performance in the Netherlands on Sunday at the Amstel Gold Race, Katusha were the team to watch. Needless to say, he was 100% correct, and they worked tirelessly throughout the race in closing down any breakaways.
Michael Albasini has already won the Volta a Catalunya this season, and is proving to be an excellent capture by the GreenEDGE team. The 31-year old rode previously for HTC-Highroad, and this year is undoubtedly in the form of his life.
Jelle Vanendert is making a name for himself on uphill finishes like this, after repeating the top five he managed at Amstel Gold. At 27 he’s certainly no newcomer, but he’ll certainly be one to watch when it comes to Ardennes week next year – and, of course, this weekend at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Irishman Dan Martin is now 25, and whilst talented, seems like a rider who’s really yet to find his niche. His sixth place today was impressive, heading the strong Garmin-Barracuda team. Hopefully this will kick-start a good 2012 as his development continues.
1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 4:45:41
2. Michael Albasini (GreenEDGE) +0:04
3. Philippe Gilbert (BMC) same time
4. Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) s/t
5. Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) +0:07
6. Dan Martin (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:09
7. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) s/t
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t
9. Diego Ulissi (Lampre-ISD) s/t
10. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) +0:11