“I watched the finale with a Walloon friend. He shed tears.” You’ll have to forgive us if our wrap-up of the 2011 Fleche-Wallone borders on the sentimental, but wow: was Phillipe Gilbert storming up the Muur de Huy ever an obscene and beautiful display of power? When Julius listed Gilbert as a 3-hill Favorite in our Fleche-Wallone preview, I rolled my eyes a bit: I suppose you have to list him in an Ardennes race, but, it’s the Muur de Huy. He can’t win up that. But, as the saying will go hereafter, Thou Shalt Not Doubt a Peaking Gilbert. For him to pull open a huge lead on the Muur de Huy over the likes of Joaquin Rodriguez, Samuel Sanchez, and Alexander Vinokourov – well, I keep trying to describe it, but I’m quite speechless. Let’s look at the race:
1. As predicted, la Fleche Wallone was defined by tight team control. Naturally, this kept everything fairly unsurprising. A four-man break gained and lost a big chunk of time before being reeled in, a few late moves tried their fate, but despite Jerome Pineau (Quick-Step) and Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil) having a few seconds’ advantage at the base of the Muur, the Fleche Wallone finishing in a side-to-side, slow-motion cartoonish uphill sprint is a very, very safe bet. The first to the bottom is the last to the top of the Muur de Huy – pat Pineau and Marcato on the back for their go of things, but they were doomed.
2. Throughout the later stages of the race, Gilbert’s OmegaPharma-Lotto team was present on the front. Was I alone in wondering, “Who are they working for? Obviously Gilbert can’t win on the Huy.” OPL was joined by Astana and Leopard-Trek quite a bit, and, closer to the end of the race, Katusha, Euskatel and Rabobank joined them in their attempt to keep their leaders at the sharp end of the stick and out of trouble.
3. Katusha’s work almost paid off for Joaquin Rodriguez, who must feel a bit deflated by another huge 2nd place. He had talked a strong game after Amstel Gold, pointing out that Gilbert had a clear advantage their but that he was the definite favorite for the Fleche Wallone. Watching Gilbert stomp away must have hurt more than Huuy’s 26% section. Rodriguez is an incredible rider who can be counted on for a glut of podium finishes in major races: second at Fleche Wallone this year and last, second at Amstel, 2nd at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and 3rd at the World Championships in ’09, and even two Grand Tour top tens last year (4th in the Vuelta, 8th in the Tour). Thus, one can’t help but wonder if Rodriguez is Chief Bridesmaid (as in, always the bridesmaid, never the bride) at Katusha.
4. No two ways around it, though: 2nd at Amstel and Fleche Wallone are damn fine results for Rodriguez. He’ll be out for blood at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and given that he is obviously in roaring form, it will be interesting to see what Grand Tours he’ll race this year – he may be too hot to race the Giro right now. Perhaps we’ll see him ride the Tour and target the Vuelta. Katusha as a whole, on the other hand, has a bit of a black eye. After a shamefully quiet cobbled season, they bring an extremely powerful Ardennes squad. They slipped a rider into the early break that gained 17 minutes, so could spend most of the day not chasing, but still: Danilo De Luca, Alexander Kolobnev, and Sergei Ivanov, what do you have to say for yourselves? For their sake, let’s hope Katusha pieces something together this weekend. They don’t quite need a miracle yet, but something’s broken.
5. Alexander Vinokourov finished 4th – clearly he’s on form and will be a threat to repeat his 2010 win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
6. Alberto Contador was near the front of the group in the middle of the Muur, but faded in the finale. This is, perhaps, a sign that he’s slowly building for the Giro and not peaking too soon. Does he know for sure that he won’t be riding the Tour? It seems so.
7. Samuel Sanchez deserves some credit for making up a good number of places toward the end of the Muur de Huuy. The Muur is a climb about timing – one can’t blame him for thinking that Gilbert went too hard and too early. Only Rodriguez followed Gilbert without then losing ground – everyone else who tried to match the acceleration reshuffled and lost places. Did Sanchez learn the lesson he’ll need to win this race in the next year or two?
8. A look at the top ten shows two OmegaPharma-Lottos, two Katushas, and two Euskatel riders. Clearly they had good reason for their work throughout the race – each team chose to throw two dangerous and well-protected riders at the Muur with the hopes of increasing their chances of a win. The losers who participated in this strategy were Rabobank, who did manage two top-15 placings with Robert Gesink and Paul Martens, and, despite their placings, Katusha – who, as stated before, still manage to emerge from 2nd place in Fleche Wallone with a black eye.
9. A few youngsters came out of the woodwork with impressive finishes, including RadioShack’s Ben Hermans, who has finished 12th, 10th, and 18th in Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, and Fleche Wallone this week.
10. Allow me to blatantly paraphrase Gage & De Soto’s tweet: The Muur de Huy is a few percent flatter after that attack by Gilbert. And so, with that, we must ask: is there anything he can’t win? For races he’s clearly targeted – Milan-SanRemo, de Ronde, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, what will it take? More on that later this week, or after Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s a question worth returning to – his triple this past week provides ample fodder for speculation about his potential and his future career moves.
Let us know what’s on your mind after today’s Fleche Wallone. This Le Soir post-race interview with Gilbert is entitled, “Gilbert décoche une Flèche wallonne” – Gilbert shoots a Walloon Arrow, but “decoche” is quite close to “decroshe,” which means “to win” in French. And, in closing, please open a bottle of Chimay and toast an incredible winner.