Preview: La Flèche Wallonne

Liège contenders take aim

Australia's Cadel Evans will be among the contenders for this July's Tour de France aiming to test their early season legs on the Belgian semi-classic La Flèche Wallonne in Charleroi on Wednesday.

But like many other race favourites, Silence-Lotto leader Evans, the yellow jersey runner-up in 2007, will be using the hilly 199.5km ride from Charleroi to Huy as a warm-up for yet another major race on the calendar. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest one-day classic in existence and on Sunday will be the climax to the 'Ardennes' spring classics which follow the cobblestoned races of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

The likes of Evans, Olympic and world champion Paolo Bettini and his Italian compatriot Damiano Cunego are among the favourites for Sunday's 'Doyenne'.

Before then, the Flèche - and its legendary climb of the Mur de Huy - can offer an early glimpse of the men who could be on form come this year's Tour de France.

Along with Cunego and Spain's 2006 winner Alejandro Valverde, Italian Davide Rebellin of Gerolsteiner will saddle up as one of the men to beat having claimed his second Flèche crown last year after his maiden win in 2004. Rebellin, 36, finished fourth in last week's hilly Amstel Gold, dominated by Lampre's specialist climber Cunego on his race debut when he managed to fight off the pain of the numerous climbs to finish ahead of Frank Schleck of CSC.

On Wednesday, the pain of repeating a total of 10 steep climbs will again be decisive, with the 1.3km long Mur - tackled twice before hosting the finish line - set to be key in separating the men from the boys.

Cunego and Rebellin would have good reason to be confident, Italians having won the past five editions of French-speaking Belgium's best-loved classic.

But Schleck will be out to avenge his Amstel defeat, and will likely be promised the help of teammate Carlos Sastre of Spain.

Another Spaniard, Valverde, cannot be ignored having finished second behind Rebellin last year and first in 2006 - although his bid could depend on the form, and ambition, of his Caisse d'Epargne teammate Joaquim Rodriguez.

Dutch victory hopes lie squarely on the 21-year-old frame of Robert Gesink, who impressed many established stars by coming close to overall victory in Paris-Nice last month.

The young Rabobank sensation finished ninth last year, giving his compatriots a sniff of a possible first victory at the Fleche since 1985.

© AFP 2008

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