Julian Alaphilippe is hoping that beating back the steep ramps of the Mur de Huy will be easier than slaying Mathieu van der Poel.

With newfound nemesis van der Poel taking a pause from his road racing season, Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) headlines an all-star start list for Wednesday’s midweek Flèche Wallonne with something to prove.

After two near-misses, including second at Brabantse Pijl and fourth at Amstel Gold Race both to van der Poel, Alaphilippe returns as defending champion looking to recapture his mojo that he carried earlier in the spring season when he won Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo.

“Julian is totally recovered from his crash in the Basque Country, and he is one of the big favorites,” said sport director Geert Van Bondt. “We have to try to control things until the last ascent of the Mur de Huy. We all know Julian has that fantastic push toward the finish line, and we hope we can achieve the same as he did last year.”

Alaphilippe might not be battling van der Poel again this weekend, but he’ll be facing off against a deep field of would-be winners.

Top among them is five-time winner and reigning world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). The Spanish team likes to call the steep climb up the Mur de Huy as “Alejandro’s mountain,” and the veteran Spaniard is ready to race to win.

“Flèche is his race and he should be at the front if everything goes to plan,” said Movistar sport director José Luís Arrieta. “The final three laps will wear down the peloton and it will be up to the leaders to control the moves.”

Other favorites include Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), Michael Woods (EF Education First), and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). Brandon McNulty leads Rally-UHC Cycling after earning an important wild-card invitation. Peter Sagan, who abandoned Amstel Gold Race on Sunday, is also slated to start for Bora-Hansgrohe ahead of his high-profile debut at Liège-Bastogne-Liège this weekend.

Yates is coming off a string of top performances and will be looking to add an Ardennes classic to his growing palmares.

“I think the Flèche suits him better now with the new finale in Liège. Anyway, he is in a great condition and has just returned from altitude training in Sierra Nevada,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Lorenzo Lapage. “We’re lucky to have a rider like Michael Albasini, who will be very helpful in the battle for positioning ahead of the Mur. Once at the bottom, the legs will do the talking, there’s no need for teammates anymore.”

There are a few tweaks to this year’s course that could shape the finale, but the final charge up the Mur de Huy is expected to decide the race.

Winds could provoke echelons in the early going of the race, while a new finishing circuit could provide more terrain for would-be attackers to disrupt the rhythm or at least make the race very hard before the final run up the Mur.

“We will have a proper final circuit this year, with a 29km loop to be covered two times and a half. Mostly, it means we’ll have nine climbs in the final 77 km,” said deputy race director Jean-Michel Monin. “The battle for positioning may be more intense and teammates will have a harder job to control the race. More riders will be dropped off the back and a smaller peloton should arrive at the bottom of the Mur de Huy. That’s what we’ve been observing since 2015 and the introduction of the Côte de Cherave.”