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Flèche Wallonne: Who can master the Mur?

Wednesday’s midweek classic Flèche Wallonne features favorites that look all but unbeatable, at least on paper.

On the men’s side, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is “King of the Mur,” having won three Flèche titles on the trot and four overall. On the women’s side, Anna Van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) is the two-time defending champion of La Flèche Wallonne Feminine, celebrating its 20th edition this year. Both are on top form, and both have strong teams to support them.

Obviously, both riders know what it takes to master the Mur de Huy, one of the iconic climbs in cycling. Short but very steep, the Mur is where the Flèche Wallonne is decided in one final burst up the steep escarpment above the Meuse River.

Will history repeat itself (again) on the Mur? We’ll find out Wednesday as the Ardennes classics click into gear.

The Mur rules

Perhaps no classic is linked to a signature climb as the Mur de Huy and Flèche Wallonne. Sure, the Ronde van Vlaanderen has the Kapelmuur and the Clásica San Sebastián has the Jaizkibel, but no race is as dependent as Flèche is on the Mur.

The Mur’s official resumé — 1.3 kilometers at 9.6 percent — doesn’t paint the full picture. With ramps as steep as 23 percent, winning up the Mur comes down to experience, acceleration, and patience. Go too early, and you’ll blow. Leave too late, and you won’t have time to come around.

Tweaks to the course over the years, including a climb in the closing 10km introduced two years ago, have done little to alter Flèche as a battle up the Mur. With three passages on the docket for the men and two for the women, it’s the last one that counts. The winner is crowned at the top.

Valverde ready to take flight

The puncheurs take over as protagonists for the long Ardennes weekend, with Flèche and Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège seeing a different kind of rider coming to the fore. One name has become synonymous with the Mur: Alejandro Valverde.

The Spanish veteran has ruled the Mur with cool efficiency, winning the past three straight editions (and another one in 2006 for a record four wins). Despite an irregular Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, he looks to be on winning form. So far, Valverde has been unstopping all spring, winning three stage races (Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya, and Vuelta al Pais Vasco), so he seems poised for another dramatic showing this week in French-speaking Belgium.

Who can beat him? It’s a shame the on-form Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) is out with a kidney tear. After winning Ronde van Vlaanderen and Amstel Gold Race, Gilbert looked ready to challenge Valverde. Also missing the race due to injury will be Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) and defending Liège champion Wout Poels (Sky), two riders who shine in the Ardennes.

Amstel Gold runner-up Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), a winner at Milano-Sanremo and runner-up at Amstel Gold, will be nipping at Valverde’s toes. Third in 2014, Kwiatkowski is also having a ripping spring. Dan Martin (Quick-Step), Esteban Chaves and Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott), Sergio Henao (Sky), and Cannondale-Drapac’s Michael Woods and Rigoberto Urán are all looking in top form.

Flèche Femmine: Van der Breggen on a tear

The 20th edition of the Flèche Feminine features two passages up the Mur on the 120km course. Two-time defending champion Anna van den Breggen (Boels-Dolmans), hot off a victory Sunday at Amstel Gold Race, could be hard to beat. The Mur might be a touch too hard for her teammate Elizabeth Diegnan and American sprinter Coryn Rivera (Sunweb).

Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3 Energie) has been consistent all season and looks poised for a win. Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5), a winner at Strade Bianche, and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Canyon SRAM), are both hitting form. And if Van den Breggen and Diegnan aren’t up for the win, Boels-Dolmans’ Megan Guarnier, third the past two years, will be ready to step up.

Ardennes double: A rare feat

Only seven riders have won the Flèche-Liège double, one of cycling’s most elusive challenges but something that’s seemingly gotten easier of late. Four of the doubles have occurred over the past 15 years, with Davide Rebellin doing it in 2004, Gilbert in 2011, and Valverde twice, in 2006 and again in 2015. Rebellin and Gilbert also won Amstel Gold Races in their respective streaks. The women will have their first shot at the “Ardennes double,” as ASO is introducing the first women’s edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège this weekend.

History lesson: 81 editions

The “Arrow of Walloon” dates back to 1936, and though it’s not quite monument status, it remains one of the most prestigious one-day classics on the calendar. It’s no surprise that Belgians hog the victory column with 38 wins. Italy is second, with 18. The United States has just one victory in the men’s column, with Lance Armstrong winning in 1996. Evelyn Stevens won in 2012. Spain has won seven times, including five straight.

Weather: Cool, partly cloudy

Ideal weather conditions for a hard day in the saddle are expected, with cool temperatures, a high around 50 degrees, partly cloudy skies, and little chance of rain. Afternoon northeasterly winds could kick up, meaning there could be a tailwind coming into the final part of the course on the last approach to the Mur.