After a incredible and full of emotions (as usual) Paris-Roubaix, with an extraordinary Johan Museeuw giving a perfect cycling lesson to his rivals, the Spring Classics (or semi-classics) are back to Belgium, for the first of the two "Ardennes Classics": the Fleche Wallonne, 198 kilometres from Charleroi to Huy, whose symbol unmistakably is the last one: the "Mur de Huy", 1000 "eternal" meters with a gradient going from to 12% to 23%, 1000 meters whose "King" will likely be King of the whole race too.
It happened last year with an extremely in form Rik Verbrugghe easily dropping Ivan Basso, it happened in 1999 with Michele Bartoli becoming "Lord of the wall". And it happened in the Y2K edition of the race, when the above mentioned Verbrugghe was beaten by one of tomorrow's possible protagonists: Fassa-Bortolo's Francesco Casagrande. That day the Florentine powered to victory with an impressive attack in the last 500 metres or so, where neither Verbrugge nor the other breakway mate (Axel Merckx) could follow his wheel.
And tomorrow "Big House" (not a nickname, just the literal translation of his own surname) will be back to the Fleche Wallonne startline, hoping to begin his new "Ardennes campaign" (to continue with LBL on Sunday) with a great result, better if a new victory, which would be the sixteenth for Italian riders in this event. Sure it won't be an easy task at all, also because the man is back to the races after some days off, courtesy of a crash in Stage 2 of "Vuelta al Pais Vasco", where he reportedly suffered a strong blow to his hip (nothing broken anyaway) that forced him to stay away from his bike for some days.
The "Gazzetta dello Sport" newspaper talked with him of this Classic and the next one: no wodner that the conversation started with a question concerning the man's current physical condition. "I'm quite well now", the Tuscan replied "my condition is growing as long as the Giro is nearing; there was this little break due to the crash in the Basque race, that stopped me for some time, but in the last two-three days I tested the strength of my legs, and got quite a positive response".
He added further details: "I still feel some chest pains, but my left forearm is no longer acheing. Right after the crash, I was afraid I had a broken ribe. But things didn't go that way, and I could start again my trainings after a few days only. So I'm feeling good now, just like I was in Stage One of the Tour of the Basque Country, where I managed to make the selection on a climb. Sure I'd need to train a little more as I'm no longer used to fast pace, but Fleche Wallonne and LBL are two races that particularly suit me".
No way to contradict his last statements, after watching the man leaving the two Belgians behind 24 months ago. "I would definitely be happy if things should go that way again, but the most important thing is winning, no matter which way, only crossing the finishing line in first place really matters".
True that, asked about which Ardennes Classic he would prefer to win, Casagrande answered "As I already took the Fleche, I'd go for LBL", but also undeniable that a victory in this very demanding ride (with the "Mur de Huy" to be climbed three times) would be a source of big satisfaction not only to him, but to the whole Fassa-Bortolo squad, as it seems that the boys in white and blue, after dominating the very early part of the season, lost their winning form in the Spring Classics, where they have missed all of their chances so far, and even been forced to see archrival Mapei dominate Ronde Van Vlaanderen. And Francesco is not looking for excuses "We have no excuses indeed. We have had poor performances in MSR and the rest of WC races so far, were in quite a negative condition, but now must pick up one good result at least ".
And Team Director Giancarlo "the Fox" Ferretti seems well-intentioned to go for it, as tomorrow he will be lining-up two of last three winners of the race, namely no less than Casagrande and Michele Bartoli. Two close friends, who might turn into rivals (on the bike) for once, as both could be serious contenders for the same trophy. Not to mention last year's runner-up Ivan Basso. But Casagrande doesn't seem to worry about it: "The most important thing is that all of us, all three riders may be at the front of the race in the final part. In this case handling the situation wouldn't be that difficult, we'd just need that anyone with the strength to make his try, or simply help his teammate(s), might actually do it".
The last part of the interview is marked by the "classical" pre-race question: which rivals do you fear the most ? Which riders seem to be in very good shape to you ? "Boogerd among foreigners. His condition is getting better, and he had very good performances in the last part of the Basque contest. The same for David Etxebarria. As to Italians, the names might be Rebellin or Bettini".
He didn't mention Danilo Di Luca, whose current form, after the crash he suffered at MSR, which kept him far from the races for some time, is still unknown. But at least the Saeco captain (which seems more intentioned to go for a LBL win rather than for the "Fleche", anyway) has got the chance to be at the startline. A "privilege" denied to Alessio, whose leaders Caucchioli and Pellizotti could have done something good in the Huy "wall" (the latter won a stage featuring a similar final part in the Tour of the Basque Country), but unfortunately the organizers' (read: JML's) decisions sidelined them