Andy Schleck had a right to be upset about the lack of aggression in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne classic, which was won in a trademark last-kilometer burst on the Mur de Huy by Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha. “I don’t understand the tactics of the peloton today,” Schleck said. “Everyone knows that no one can beat Rodriguez on this climb, but no one attacked, no one did anything.”
What Schleck was getting at was the waiting game played by virtually all the pre-race favorites. The only notables to show themselves at the front were RadioShack-Nissan-Trek’s Schleck, whose attack about 45 kilometers from the finish was marked by Katusha’s Yury Trofimov, and Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal, whose attack over the second-last hill with Team Sky’s Lars Peter Nordhaug gained just 13 seconds before being swamped halfway up the Mur de Huy.
Schleck could have also criticized the negative racing at last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, where no rider or team took the initiative, and the race, like the Flèche, ended in an uphill charge to the line. The victory on the Cauberg summit went to the unlikely Enrico Gasparotto of Astana, who followed wheels all day until the last 100 meters.
As with the Flèche, the Dutch classic did feature some brave performances, notably by neo-pros Alex Howes of Garmin-Barracuda and Romain Bardet of AG2R-La Mondiale in a race-long effort, and by Oscar Freire of Katusha in a late solo breakaway. But of the true race favorites only Peter Sagan of Liquigas and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Sky briefly showed their cards in the finale. The result was almost 40 riders coming together at the foot of the Cauberg for the uphill sprint. Three days later, there’d be almost 50 riders in the pack at the bottom of the Mur de Huy.
There are several explanations (not excuses!) for the peloton’s passivity in the season’s opening two climbing classics. First, both races end atop a steep climb, a fact that tends to put fear into riders’ mindsets, making them save themselves for the finish. But, as Schleck pointed out after the Flèche, there was no point in saving yourself for a bunch finish you knew you couldn’t win. Winner Rodriguez was runner-up in 2010 to Cadel Evans (who was absent this week) and to Philippe Gilbert last year. And everyone knew on Wednesday that Gilbert was about 10 percent below his 2011 peak.
Rodriguez might also have won the Amstel Gold Race, but the skinny, 120-pound Spanish climber was suffering from the cold temperatures (only 38 degrees Fahrenheit at the finish). Even so, he was still present in the lead group of riders who showed no inclination to break things open in the Amstel Gold’s usually decisive trio of steep, narrow climbs—the Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg and Fromberg—which come one after the other between 21 and 15 kilometers to go.
Instead, Howes and Bardet, who’d been on the attack for more than five hours, kept their gap of between 30 and 45 seconds before both were caught inside 8 kilometers to go. In every other year since the Amstel course was changed to finish on the Cauberg in 2003, there have been fierce battles over the Eyserbosweg, with rarely more than a dozen riders emerging for the finale. The insipidness of the 2012 race was emphasized when Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez’s chain snapped just before the Kruisberg. His chance of getting a result seemed to be gone, but the Basque rider was able to close a minute’s gap (with help from a couple of teammates), and he even figured in the sprint finish, taking seventh place.
So why was this year different from every other year? The excuse waiting for the uphill finish was not valid, neither was the race distance, which, at 260.4 kilometers, is the usual length of a major classic. Nor was there a dominant team keeping the race together and chasing down breaks for its leader. Rather, Gasparotto’s Astana teammates, runner-up Jelle Vanendert’s Lotto-Belisol riders and Gilbert’s BMC Racing men all contributed to the tempo over the final couple of hours. But their pace was never enough to blow the race apart.
A possible explanation for the negative racing is the team leaders’ lack of form. That was the case with BMC’s Gilbert and Evans (who pulled out with a sinus infection), Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde (coming back from injury) and RadioShack’s Schleck brothers (Andy and Fränk have been as tardy as Gilbert in their preparation for the spring classics). Another reason is the paucity of star riders for the hilly classics. Champions of the recent past, such as Erik Dekker, Michael Boogerd, Michele Bartoli and Lance Armstrong, were notorious for their aggressive riding at the Amstel Gold Race—which nearly always ended with breakaways by two or three men, not field sprints.
Distance is a factor with the Flèche Wallonne. This race, at its current distance of 194 kilometers, is far too short to be considered a true classic. The Fleche was always raced over distances of around 250 kilometers until its organization was taken over by ASO (the Tour de France company) in 1993. And it used to take place over more difficult terrain, including some of the longer climbs that feature in Liège-Bastogne-Liège —which will be raced this coming Sunday.
Instead, ASO this year chose a new finishing loop for the Flèche that was even less challenging than the one used in recent editions. So to make the race a more worthy classic, ASO has to restore the distance to 250 kilometers, and return to the finishing loop that existed when Armstrong won the race in 1996 in a two-man breakaway (not a 50-rider field sprint).
So what can we expect from this weekend’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège? Like the Amstel Gold Race and the Flèche, it has an uphill finish into the Liège suburb of Ans. That finish is preceded by four steep climbs in the final 35 kilometers of the 257.5km race: La Redoute (1.7km at 9.5 percent), Sprimont (1.1km at 6.3 percent), La Roche-aux-Faucons (1.5km at 9.3 percent) and St. Nicolas (1.4km at 7.6 percent).
The Roche-aux-Faucons (“Falcons Rock”) has a steepest pitch of 15 percent and there’s a short downhill after the summit before it continues climbing on a straight concrete road exposed to the wind, 18 kilometers from the finish. That is where the key break has developed in each of the four years the climb has been included in the course.
In 2008, three men emerged to contest a sprint finish: Valverde, Davide Rebellin and Fränk Schleck (Andy Schleck was fourth); in 2009, winner Andy Schleck was alone for the last 20 kilometers; in 2010, the break was made by two men, Alexander Vinokourov and Alexander Kolobnev (the Schlecks were in the chase group, placing sixth and ninth); and last year Gilbert out-sprinted his two breakaway companions, the Schleck brothers.
Given their track record at Liège, the Schlecks look sure to again figure in the breakaway equation on La Roche-aux-Faucons. If so, then younger brother Andy won’t be puzzling over the other teams’ tactics like he did at the Flèche. La Doyenne (“the oldest one”), as Liège-Bastogne-Liège is known, should again live up to its reputation as both the oldest classic (founded in 1894) and the most spectacular one. But should there be a field sprint then we’ll know there’s something seriously wrong with our sport.