Cassagrande climbs to victory at La Fleche Wallone

Noted for his climbing skills, Casagrande has taken the lead as the Giro turned uphill.  Credit: Allsport
To win the 10-round professional cycling world cup, a rider has to be consistent. But the prestige of a classic win paired with varying types of courses causes riders to pick races they have a chance at winning.

The first three races of the world cup are geared for the sprinters and cobblestone riders, causing climbers to opt to train in quiet Spanish races.

Now the emphasis shifts to hilly courses, with a look toward the major spring and summer tours. La Fleche Wallone, though not part of the world cup, is considered a semi-classic, and draws a full field of the best one-day climbers to its famed Muir de Huy climb, which has slopes of up to 25 percent.

Riders climb the Muir de Huy three times: first at 73K, then at 110K, and finally the leg-breaking finish.

As the first half of the Belgium Ardennes weekend trophy, the race pairs with this weekends Lige-Bastogne-Lige for a combined points title.

More importantly, Fleche Wallone is a good indicator of who will go well in the hilly Lige-Bastogne-Lige, round four of the world cup, although historically the same rider rarely wins both races.

Italian climber Francisco Casagrande (Vini Caldirola), absent from the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix on April 8, won Fleche Wallone, with an impressive attack in the final kilometers and then a burst to the finish at the top of the Muir de Huy.

"It was all going very well but in the last 100-meters I really had to push it hard," Casagrande said.

The win was Casagrandes first of the season; last year he won the Tour of Switzerland and the San Sebastian classic before taking fifth at the World Championships.

Although cold winds blew and rain was forecast for the 64th edition of the 198K race, riders were relieved that the weather didnt match last years epic event, which finished in heavy snow.

Few, if any riders could remember such a hellish race, as Michele Bartoli won via an 80K breakaway amid the snow flurries.

With a stiff wind at their backs, Chris Boardman (Credit Agriciole) and Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas (Fassa Bortolo) started an early escape at 37K.

The sluggish peloton, many of whom were still bruised from Paris-Roubaix, allowed the pair to a lead of 12 minutes before starting to roll.

At 174K Rik Verbrugghe (Lotto), with an all-Belgian team to work for him, and Axel Merckx (Mapei), son of the famed "Belgian Cannibal," Eddy Merckx, attacked to a 20-second lead, conjuring images for the rabid fans of the first Belgian victory since 1989.

Joined at 187K by Casagrande, the trio rapidly pulled back the two breakaway riders.

After 150K out front and 11 agonizingly close kilometers from the finish, Boardman and Rumsas were caught, and promptly dropped, by the streaking trio.

Behind, two-time winner Laurent Jalabert (Once) had his team driving hard to reel back the break before the brutal finish on the Muir.

"It's a very difficult course to really get some chasing behind," a tired Boardman, who would eventually finish 39th, 1:26 down, said at the finish. "But just two of us in this kind of wind, it just wasn't enough."

On the 800-meter Muir de Huy climb, Merckx was the first to be dropped, and then the slightly built Casagrande attacked Verbrugghe at the steepest pitch of the climb to blow away the Belgians hopes.

Verbrugghe would manage to hang on over the top for second place, seven seconds behind Casagrande, but a tiring Merckx was caught by the peloton.

World No.1-ranked Jalabert led the pack over the top for third.

Jalabert, known for his long and sometimes ill-advised breakaways including a fruitless early move in last years Lige-Bastogne-Lige might have played his Ardenne weekend cards perfectly by not working too hard until the final climb.

I didn't want to waste my energy," Jalabert said about his wait until the Muir to jump. "I waited for the final rise and they got a bit too far ahead.

La Fleche Wallone April 12

Men's results:
name, country, team, time
1. Francesco Casagrande (ITA), Vini Caldirola 4:53:08
2. Rik Verbrugghe (BEL), Lotto at +:06
3. Laurent Jalabert (FRA), ONCE at +:08
4. Davide Rebellin (ITA), (Liquigas-Pata) at 08
5. Mario Aerts, (BEL), Lotto at +:08
6. Peter Farazijn (BEL), Cofidis same time
7. David Etxebarria (ESP), Once s.t.
8. Dario Frigo (ITA), Fassa Bortolo s.t.
9. Maurio Gianetti (SUI), Vini Caldirola s.t.
10. Axel Merckx (BEL), Mapei at +:14

In the womens Fleche Wallone, also held April 12, Canadian sensation Genevieve Jackson (Association Cycliste Canadienne) won the women's race ahead of Finland's Pia Sundstedt.

Jackson won two gold medals at last years junior world championships, and at age 18 is now one of the brightest stars in womens racing.

La Fleche Wallone April 12

Women's results:
name, country, team, time
1 Genevive Jeanson (CAN), ACC 2.38.09
2 Pia Sundstedt (FIN), Gas Sport at +:10
3 Fany Lecourtois (FRA), Alfa Lum at +:23
4 Diana Ziliute (LTH), Acca Due O at +:37
5 Cindy Pieters (BEL), Vlaanderen at +:41

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