Wednesday sees Ardennes week continue for the world’s top riders with the Fleche Wallonne or tour of the Wallonne region of southern Belgium. Traditionally a marker of who will be at the front of affairs on Sunday at Liege Bastogne Liege. Starting in Binche, just to the west of Charlerois, the race, after 205 kilometres, finishes in its traditional location, the Mur de Huy.
This climb has seen some great battles in the past. 1.3 kilometres long, with an average of 9.3% it is not easy. With sections up to 22% it favours those who are good at going uphill. The race goes over the climb a total of three times, with the action normally taking place on the final ascent.
First held in 1936, Fleche Wallonne has become a monument for those who like the hillier classics. Sometimes overshadowed by Amstel Gold and Liege Bastogne Liege, the rider who wins at the summit on the Mur de Huy is 100% the strongest rider of the day.
The Mur de Huy is a tricky finish, with the finish line seeming closer than expected. But with its steep gradient and hard racing before it, a well-timed sprint is the key to success. Prior to the Mur there is a rolling and twist circuit for the riders to take on. All day long, short steep climbs challenge the peloton, draining their legs.
After an explosive race at Amstel Gold on Sunday, the list of favourites is firmly taken from the final results there. Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) will be the man to watch, after showing his form in Amstel, but the finish is very different. The steep Mur de Huy will mean a poker game of an uphill sprint, with those jumping for the finish too soon paying the price.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Simon Gerrans (Orca-Green Edge) will be safe bets for a top 5 position, Gilbert’s explosive attack on the Cauberg on Sunday putting him as the number 1 favourite for the race. Last year’s victor, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), would be a sure-fire favourite for the race, but his heavy crash on Sunday during the Amstel Gold race has put his potential to win into question.
Another rider of note for the race will be the returning Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). An explosive rider on the short climbs makes him a dangerous man, but he has had a limited racing schedule so far this season, which could raise some question marks on his form. Golden boy of the spring, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will be riding Fleche Wallonne, extending his spring campaign by one race. After cramps in Amstel Gold saw him finish in a lowly 36th place his form on such a steep hill is yet to be seen. His team have commented that he is at the event to gain experience, but on his current form it would be unwise to count him out of making the selection.
For those looking toward the Brits in the race there are only three (as per the entry list on the race organiser’s website). Stephan Cummings (BMC), Josh Edmondson and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Team Sky). None will factor too greatly in the finale of the race, but will be there to shepherd their respective Team’s leaders to the finish.
Also taking place just before the men’s race is the women’s world cup, which finishes also on the Mur de Huy. Last year’s victor, Evelyn Stevens (Specialized -Lululemon), will take the start with number 1 on her back. She is a strong rider and could repeat her victory. She does have some stiff competition from Marianne Vos (Rabo-women). Arguably the greatest cyclist currently riding, if on form, Vos will be hard to match on such a climb. For the Brits there is the full Wiggle Honda Team taking place. Stacked with many famous faces from the Olympic Game’s track team they could pull off a great result here.
So Wednesday afternoon, do as the Belgians will in force. Take a half-day, crack open a strong Belgium beer, tuck into some frites and watch the action unfold. Fleche Wallonne is one of the highlights of the season, with a finish which will have even the most relaxed cycling fan on the edge of their seat, yelling at their TV.