The opening stages of the 2015 Tour de France read like a succession of one day Classics. After yesterday’s wind ravaged charge through the southern Netherlands and a stunning final on the Zélande coastline the peloton heads inland to face the worst that Belgium and northern France can throw at them. Tomorrow the riders will do battle over the cobbles that make Paris-Roubaix perhaps the most iconic Spring classic – the very same that obliterated the field 12 months ago and underlined a three week cycling master class by Vincenzo Nibali, the race’s eventual winner. But first, they will undergo a very different ordeal.
Le Chemin des Chapelles (Path of the Chapels) hauls itself out of the centre of Huy, a town typical of those that lie along the river Meuse whose meanders formed the backbone of Belgian industry in the area throughout the 19th century, but to the inhabitants of Huy this narrow road goes by a very different name. Le Mur.
A more apt name (in English “mur” translates as “wall”) would be hard to find for a road that climbs some 128 metres in little over a kilometre and acts as both centrepiece and breath taking hill finish to the second of the Ardennes Spring classics, La Flèche Wallonne. It is in this race which criss-crosses the Walloon region of Belgium that the Mur de Huy cemented its status as one of the most iconic climbs in cycling. Bernard Hinault ground his way to victory in 1983 – the first time the ramp was used to close the race – and each year since has seen many more riders carve their names in to the annals of cycling history often collapsing exhausted at its summit.
Reaching a maximum gradient of 26% on the Mur’s famous S-bend, the climb begins in innocuous fashion with the first few hundred metres little more than a false flat. From here as the road winds its way past the seven churches from which it takes its name the incline becomes increasingly savage and rightfully earns its reputation as one of the first climbs that saw riders scrabbling to use larger and larger rear sprockets to overcome its tortuous gradients.
The list of victors on the Mur de Huy is a who’s who of the best climbers the sport of cycling have ever seen with Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde adding a third victory in Huy to the roll of honour with a calculated late surge earlier this year. The climb has been used rather infrequently by the Tour de France with this year marking the first ever time the climb has featured as a stage finish but this will only add to the excitement and the spectacle as the peloton suffers on its slopes.
Today’s stage is an homage to the Ardennes classic whose iconic climb it has chosen to mirror as its centrepiece. Indeed, the final 20km of the stage are identical to those which the peloton raced over this April. The main talking point then was the inclusion of a new climb before the Mur – the Côte de Cherave – whose similarly sharp gradients and summit less than 6km from the finish in Huy was expected to add a new dimension to a race that had become in essence a mass hill sprint up the Mur.
These last few kilometres of the stage are certainly a test for the riders who will sweep through technical, narrow roads over rolling terrain with cobbles, a level crossing and multiple roundabouts thrown in for good measure. Many of the general classification riders used this year’s La Flèche Wallonne as a dress rehearsal for today’s action and it certainly proved a stern enough test – Chris Froome fell afoul of the technicality of the final, crashing as the race reached a crescendo. He and the other GC contenders will be looking for an uneventful finish in Huy today.
Favourite to take victory has to be Alejandro Valverde, looking for his second win on the climb this year. Michal Kwiatkowski, Etixx Quickstep’s reigning world champion, Michael Albasini of Orica GreenEDGE and Joaquim Rodriguez all finished in the top five at this year’s Flèche Wallonne and can each be counted on to vie for the victory once more. Out of the general classification riders Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador perhaps has the necessary explosiveness to win the stage or lay claim to the bonus seconds available for the first three riders to cross the line.