Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. Great news: There are tons of cycling races all season! Less-great news: Like trying to pick an ice cream flavor at Ben & Jerry’s, tons of choices can be overwhelming. So, we’ll try to help out by giving you quick, fun overviews of major races. Stay tuned for more previews.
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Your new favorite race: Flèche Wallonne, April 19
Why should you care about this race? Flèche gives we Americans the rare opportunity fire up the livestream on a Wednesday morning and pretend to work while we covertly watch bike racing. In Belgium, folks to leave work early by the thousandsa, down a pint or three, and then stand along super steep roads where they scream and yell and generally enjoy themselves. Yes, those Europeans have the right idea. With its finish up the brutal Mur de Huy, Flèche is a pure benchmark for the peloton’s top climbers for the hilly one-day races. While Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race revised its route for a more tactical finish, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, coming up April 23, is more of a sheer endurance test, Flèche showcases an explosive finale. If you like suspenseful finishes, you’ll love Wednesday’s 204.5km romp through the Ardennes.
Most dramatic edition in recent memory? In the last two editions, Alejandro Valverde manhandled the peloton on the Mur, but in 2014, the Spaniard looked to be on the back foot. Ag2r La Mondiale’s Mikael Cherel attacked at the base of the climb, in support of then-teammate Carlos Betancur. After the French attacker was reeled in, Bauke Mollema and then Michal Kwiatkowski took charge. Kwiatkowski hit out first, and then Dan Martin, winner of Liège the year prior, made his moved. Was Valverde boxed in? Did he leave the acceleration too late? No and nope. Valverde unleashed his fearsome kick to win his second Flèche Wallonne. Since then, he’s undefeated, winning in 2015 and 2016.
Your race’s defining feature: You’ve been paying attention, right? It’s the Mur de Huy, where the race has finished since 1984. Like most Ardennes hills, it is modest in length at 1.3km, and hard, but not too hard, averaging 9.6 percent. This leads to those suspenseful finishes. Going back to 2008, every edition of Flèche has been won by a margin of five seconds or less atop the 204-meter climb. The peloton rides the Mur de Huy two other times in the route, after 146.5 kilometers and 175.5 kilometers of racing on the 204.5km day.
Ladies first? Yes, and the Flèche Femme is one of the most prestigious women’s WorldTour races on the calendar. Like the men, it usually comes down to a slugfest up the Mur. Some of the women’s peloton’s greatest champions have won atop the Mur de Huy in its nine-year history — Marianne Vos, Evelyn Stevens, and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, among others. This year, going into Wednesday’s 120km test, Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) seems like the top favorite, having won here in 2015 and 2016.
Who are you betting your beer money on this year? If I’d written this column Sunday night, I would have picked 2011 winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) because he absolutely dominated Amstel Gold Race that day. But, turns out Gilbert whacked his kidney a little too hard in a crash, leaving the door wide open for Movistar’s Valverde. Van der Breggen, on the other hand, is just peachy after winning Amstel on Sunday, and she’s my pick for Flèche. I know, boring, chalk picks, but hey, although tactics aren’t insignificant, the Mur de Huy is a rather pure test of pedaling talent, plain and simple.