The Spaniard, second in 2010 and 2011 in the second of the Ardennes Classics, rode away from all his rivals on the infamous final climb. Albasini second and Gilbert third.
Road race - Men
Flèche Wallonne - 18 April 2012
Flèche Wallonne – Follow this cycling race live with Eurosport. The action starts at 19:45 on 18 April 2012. Our live coverage lets you follow all the key moments as they happen.
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VICTORY for Joaquin Rodriguez!
Joaquin Rodriguez goes clear.
Nordhaug has left Hesjedal but here comes the chasers.
They are on the Mur de Huy with a 13 second advantage.
Hesjedal and Nordhaug come into the town of Huy ahead with that 12 second advantage but can they hang on.
Still 12 seconds for the lead duo.
The gap stretches to 12 seconds over the Katusha led peloton.
9 seconds is the gap but the finishing 1.3km 'wall' has an average gradient of 9.3% but with ramps of 19%.
The Norwegian from Team Sky and the Garmin rider have an eight second lead on the peloton.
The Canadian now follows the wheel of Lars Petter Nordhaug who looks to get away on the descent.
The Kazakh is caught by Ryder Hesjedal but Katusha drag the group up to the leading duo.
Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) attacks on the 1.2km Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet which has an average gradient of 7.5%
The rain is falling as a big group, including Frank Schleck, hit the Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet.
That quartet have been caught by a strung out peloton as they head towards the Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet.
Frank Schleck punctures at the foot of the Cote d'Amay as Slagter and Visconti catch the breakaway riders.
Tom Jelte Slagter and Giovanni Visconti are the latest riders to try and bridge the gap to the leaders. They have gained a few seconds on the peloton before the Cote d’Amay.
Yury Trofimov, Brice Feillu and Rui Alberto Faria Da Costa tried to break clear of the peloton but were swiftly caught. Many riders trying to get a few seconds ahead of the fast-moving bunch before the final three climbs in the last 15km. Dirk Bellemakers (Landbouwkrediet) and Anthony Roux (FDJ-BigMat) are hanging out in front by just 12 seconds.
The speed was cranked up in the peloton and that trio was reeled back in before the second ascent of the Mur de Huy. Bellemakers and Roux now lead by just 37 seconds from the main bunch.
Dimitry Fofonov, Andy Schleck and Yury Trofimov have made a counter-attack out of the peloton.
Armee (TopSport) has been caught by the peloton so just Dirk Bellemakers (Landbouwkrediet) and Anthony Roux (FDJ) in front as the pace heats up in the bunch. 2:05 is the gap to the two leaders.
Today's winner will receive a prize of 16,000 euros, second gets 8,000 and third 4,000.
Igor Anton was fourth in 2010 and fifth in 2011 and is upbeat on his chances. He said: "Just a few places forward or back at the foot of the Mur makes all the difference between a top five and a top ten place. My condition is good, and I’m expecting to be up there again. This race suits me better than Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it's 50 kilometres shorter and that kind of short, steep climb is exactly what suits me."
The Côte de Groynne (53km left), Côte de Bohisseau (47km) and Côte de Bousalle (44km) comnig thick and fast before the second ascent of the Mur de Huy with Bellemakers and Roux 2:40 ahead of Armee with the bunch at 4:30.
Colombia-Coldeportes have a rare WorldTour invite today and former U23 world champion Fabio Duarte said: "So far in Belgium I’ve done well on the short, steep climbs that you get in the Ardennes, and my form is good. It always is at this time of year, so that’s encouraging. Today will be a bit of a voyage in the dark but I’ve watched the videos of previous races. It’s not so much the distance that worries me, it’s the final climb and how to tackle it perfectly."
RadioShack-Nissan are led by the Schleck brothers. Frank was seventh last year and Andy was ninth in 2010 and second in 2009. "Amstel Gold has strengthened my morale," Frank, 12th on Sunday, said. "I made a mistake, though, I wasn’t in the right place for the Eyserbosweg [climb]. Even so, I could get back to the front of the bunch but I got cramps in the final sprint. So form-wise I’m where I want to be for this time of year. My brother’s in good shape, his condition is improving day by day."
Time gap at the top of the Haut-Bois is down to 4:20 between the leaders and the peloton. Lotto-Bellisol and Katusha still doing the bulk of the work with seven climbs left.
Second in Amstel Gold, Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Bellisol) is more confident. "I’ve never won a Classic so I can’t consider myself to be the top favourite, but if everything goes well, I have a big chance. However, I think that [Joaquim] Rodríguez is a couple of points ahead of the rest of us in the game. You can never rule Gilbert out. But to win on the Mur de Huy, he will have to have the same kind of form that he had last year."
Four of the last nine editions of Flèche Wallone have seen the race won by the same man who claimed Amstel Gold but Enrico Gasparotto doesn’t think 'doing a double' is likely. "I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t have the physical build of a champion or the habit of racking up the victories like Philippe Gilbert. My favourite for today is [Joaquim] Rodríguez. Amstel and Flèche aren’t the same kind of race. I prefer Liege-Bastogne-Liege."
The sun is out and the gap of the two leaders has been cut to 6:30. Sander Armee (TopSport) is sandwiched around halfway between the escapees and the peloton which is led by Lotto-Bellisol.
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This race has been won in recent years by the likes of Cadel Evans, Kim Kirchen, Danilo Di Luca and Davide Rebellin - on three occasions.
Dirk Bellemakers (Landbouwkrediet) and Anthony Roux (FDJ-BigMat) have seen their lead stretch to seven minutes.
Team Sky leader Uran has not raced since the Tour of Catalonia but feels confident. "The last couple of climbs are tougher and more technical and will weed out a lot more riders than other years, but I still think there will be 40 or 50 of us in the front pack at the foot of the Mur de Huy, as usual," the Colombian said. "We went up the final climb three times in training and it's good to know it, but positioning is equally important. You have to be in the front 20 when you hit the Mur."
One person not racing is Cadel Evans who will also miss Liege–Bastogne–Liege on Sunday as he continues his recovery from a sinus infection. The Australian, who won Fleche-Wallonne in 2010, was forced to withdraw from Sunday's Amstel Gold Race due to the condition. BMC chief medical officer Max Testa said the defending Tour de France champ will return home to help speed up his recovery. "Cadel has the Tour of Romandie coming in one week and with this infection, we don't want to take any risks."
Over the Mur for the first time and Bellemakers and Roux have 2:25 on lone chaser Sjef De Wilde (Accent Jobs) and 3:25 on the peloton which was led by Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan).
Dirk Bellemakers (Landbouwkrediet) has attacked and has been joined by Frenchman Anthony Roux (FDJ). The peloton have let them go and they are 2:45 ahead.
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Other team leaders are - GreenEdge: Michael Albasini; OPQS: Dries Devenyns; Sky: Rigoberto Uran; Accent Jobs: Staf Scheirlinckx; Landbouwkrediet: Dirk Bellemakers; Topsport: Preben Van Hecke; Colombia: Fabio Duarte; Saxo Bank: Karsten Kroon; Garmin: Ryder Hesjedal; Type 1-Sanofi: Julien El Fares; AG2R: Rinaldo Nocentini; FDJ: Pierrick Fédrigo; Saur-Sojasun: Julien Simon; Lampre: Leonardo Bertagnolli; Rabobank: Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema; Vacansoleil: Thomas De Gendt; Shimano: Simon Geschke
Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez is the favourite for the 76th edition of the UCI World Tour race while fellow Spaniards Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), the winner in 2006, Igor Anton (Euskaltel) and his own team-mate Daniel Moreno are also tipped to flourish. The top two in Sunday's race, Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Jelle Vandendert (Lotto), are also in the field as is Luxembourg's Frank Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan and Liquigas' Vincenzo Nibali.
Katusha have caught the breakaway riders and we are all back together but Jurgen Van De Walle (Lotto-Bellisol) has abandoned after a crash.
The 29-year-old, who claimed all three Ardennes Classics in 2011, has been short on form since joining BMC but shown a sign of improvement, chasing Freire up the finishing climb of the Cauberg before fading. And he is feeling more confident about his condition. "I'm satisfied, having had a respectable result is good for the morale and helps me recover a little faster," he said. "I knew my condition would be back one day and it's nice to be better."
Philippe Gilbert thinks Katusha are the team to watch in the 76th edition of Fleche-Wallonne on Wednesday. The defending champion produced a season-best, sixth-place finish at Amstel Gold on Sunday but thinks the Russian team will be dangerous. "They have several cards to play with guys like Oscar Freire and Joaquin Rodriguez. They have a very strong team here. For me they are the favorites, especially with this type of finish."
Ratto punctures so Christensen leads alone. Preben Van Hecke (TopSport) and Sjef De Wilde (Accent Jobs) are now trying to jump across with a lead of around 30 seconds on the peloton. Speed for the opening hour was a rapid 47 km/h.
It is a wet and windy day in Belgium and there has been a crash in the peloton which has forced Slovenian Jure Kocjan (Team Type 1) to abandon.
Daniele Ratto (Liquigas) and Mads Christiensen (Saxo Bank) have a 20 second advantage on the bunch. An attempt by Oleg Chuzda (Accent Jobs) to reach them has been foiled as was earlier breakaway attempts from Kurt Hovelynck (Landbouwkrediet) and Gregoy Habeux (Accent Jobs) and the first effort of the day from Jelle Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen) was shortlived.
The final run-in is harder, thanks to the Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet climb. and Jean-Michel Monin, who designed the new route, said: "The battle to be in the right position will be much more intense. They will have to race through the town of Amay to get to the Côte d’Amay which will make the bunch nervous. And whilst that climb is reached on a fairly wide road, they then tackle the Côte de Villers on a much narrower road. And the first 500m is particularly steep with gradients of 13%"
A second ascent of the Mur comes with 31km remaining before the Cote d’Amay (14km remaining) and the Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet which is just 9km out from the finish. That may whittle down the main group but the race is always decided on the final ascent of the Huy, the 1.3km 'wall' which has average gradient of 9.3% but with ramps of 19%.
After that first trip across the finish, line the peloton take on a southern loop of 92 kilometres and tackle five climbs - Côte de Peu d'Eau (with 82km left), the Côte de Haut-Bois (78km), the Côte de Groynne (53km), Côte de Bohisseau (47km) and Côte de Bousalle (44km) - before looping back around to Andenne.
The riders have just rolled out of Charleroi and are heading for what is a largely flat start to the race before the first of the nine climbs after 70km and that is the infamous 'Mur de Huy' that is likely to decide the race.
198 riders have just rolled out of the official start in Compiègne to take on the 194km route. All 18 ProTour teams are in attendance plus wildcards Colombia - Coldeportes, Saur–Sojasun, Landbouwkrediet - Euphony, Type 1 - Sanofi, Topsport Vlaanderen - Mercator, Argos-Shimano and Accent Jobs - Willems Veranda’s.
Welcome to live updates from the 76th edition of Fleche-Wallonne, the first of two Belgian Ardennes classics this week.