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Defending champion Rodriguez spills the secrets to winning Fleche Wallonne

Defending champion Joaquim Rodríguez dishes on the secrets to unlocking the Mur de Huy

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RIEMST, Belgium (VN) — Perhaps no one in the contemporary peloton knows the Mur de Huy better than Joaquim Rodríguez.

The Katusha pocket rocket spent much of his career chasing victory up the short, steep Belgian climb that serves as the climactic conclusion to Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne. After finishing second in 2010 and 2011, Rodríguez timed it right up the Mur and darted to victory last year.

At 5-foot-6 and 128 pounds, Rodríguez was born with the DNA to thrive in the hills of the Ardennes, and the short, explosive Mur seems built just for him.

“We call it the longest kilometer of the year,” Rodríguez said Tuesday. “I know in that one kilometer I can make differences that others need four kilometers to make. With my weight, the climb is perfect, because I have the explosiveness that others who weigh 70 kilograms do not.”

Curiously enough, when asked what came to mind when someone mentioned the word “wall,” Rodríguez said it wasn’t the Mur de Huy, literally the “wall of Huy,” but rather Montelupone, the equally steep climb to the hilltop Italian town, featured in March’s Tirreno-Adriatico.

“Montjuic [in Barcelona] should be the first that comes to mind because it, too, is like a wall, and it’s my hometown climb that served as my baptism into the pro ranks,” he said. “The first thing I would think of when someone says wall would not be the Mur, but Montelupone, or better, ‘Montepurito.’”

A crash Sunday in the Amstel Gold Race has left Rodríguez with a hematoma on the back of his left thigh, but he vowed to start with hopes that racing tomorrow will help him prepare for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the other Ardennes race that’s so far eluded him.

On Tuesday, Rodríguez outlined the keys to dominating the Mur de Huy and winning Flèche Wallonne.

Controlling the breaks

“You need a strong block of riders,” he said. “First, to control the breakaways. I believe the older course, without the final, shorter circuit, was more difficult than today to control because riders could reach the base of the Mur with a gap. Last year, we saw riders attack over the final circuit with 10 kilometers to go, like Ryder [Hesjedal], who was only caught with 500 meters to go. My team was essential to close that down last year.”

Approaching the Mur

“The arrival to the Mur is almost like a sprint,” he said. “You want to be in the front 10 or maximum 15 riders, because otherwise you’re too far back and can get blocked. Last year, [Oscar] Freire led me out with 2km to go, and then Dani [Moreno] paced me until I attacked with 400 meters to go. It’s almost like being led out for a sprint, except it’s a bit steeper [laughs]. When you arrive at the base of the Mur, you think, ‘OK, now it’s time to suffer.’ You also know it’s going to be over soon.”

Attacking at right moment

“I wouldn’t say there is one place where it’s essential to attack,” he said. “Every year is a bit different, based on the dynamics of the race. It’s a little on instinct and how you size up your rivals. If you have strong legs, you might go a little earlier. Last year, I attacked with about 400 meters to go. It was perfect because I went to the absolute maximum and opened up a gap.”

The correct gearing

“Last year I attacked in the 17,” said Rodríguez. “I tend to sweep wider through the corners. It’s longer in distance, but the inside line is so steep, you lose momentum. Of course, I use the 39. I don’t think anyone is capable of riding up the Mur in the 53.”

The final surge

“The final 150 meters are a bit flatter, so I took one look back, and buried it to the line,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk changing gears. I just kept pushing the pedals to hold my speed. Momentum is everything. It’s so tight and fast, so one mistake can ruin all your chances.”

How the rivals should ride

“There are many [favorites] this year,” said Rodríguez. “Alejandro [Valverde] demonstrated Sunday he comes to the Ardennes in top shape. With me not being in top shape, it will be up to Movistar to control the race. There’s GreenEdge, Gilbert, and Euskaltel. The final climb is good for Igor Antón. Sagan? I think he should try to attack like Hesjedal did last year. If he hits the base of the Mur with a 20-second gap, there’s no bringing him back.”

An American in France

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