Commentary: It’s time for Flèche Wallonne to ditch the Mur de Huy finish
La Flèche Wallonne should alter the iconic Mur de Huy finale, argues Fred Dreier, especially in light of the Amstel Gold Race's success with its new finish.
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There are few scenes in cycling quite like the Mur de Huy on La Flèche Wallonne race day.
Throngs of Belgian cycling fans, giddy from having left work early on a Wednesday, walk up the painfully steep Chemin des Chappelles lane, past the small churches and brick homes, along dozens of stenciled ‘Huy’ road paint, all the way up to the highest point in town.
Beer flows freely and the thump of Europop echoes across the hillside, as the crowds soak in the stunning view of the nearby Tihange nuclear power plant.
And every hour or so, a bike race goes by.
I’ve always mentioned the Mur de Huy’s awesome hilltop party when arguing one side of the debate that precedes the race’s running each year. That debate, of course, is whether organizers should move the finish off of the hilltop in an effort to spice up what has become a stuffy and predictable race.
For years I’ve stood squarely in the “No” camp, because moving the finish could snuff out the party on the Mur de Huy.
Alas, in recent years I’ve inched closer to the “Yes” side of this argument.
And after Wednesday’s edition, I’m ready to change my party line.
Sorry, Belgian hilltop partiers, I’m ready to move Flèche Wallonne’s finish line elsewhere. We need to liven up Flèche, and if that means moving the womp-womp tunes and beer garden off of the hill, I’m all for it.
We’re all familiar with the predictable racing dynamics caused by the Mur de Huy.
No breakaway rider is strong enough to survive the onslaught of the favorites on the steep ramp, and even the biggest time gap shrinks to nothing on the road’s opening 11 percent gradient. The favorites must simply hide in the peloton, allow their teammates to keep the breakaway in check, and then wait to pounce on the Mur.
It’s true that the final battle up the Mur de Huy boils a race down to a few crucial moments. But alas, the dynamics up the steep hill are equally predictable as the previous hours of racing.
There’s always a strong but inexperienced favorite who goes just a tad too soon — Primož Roglič played the role of rabbit wonderfully this year — and then a seasoned veteran waits until the finish line is in sight to light the afterburners and cruise to victory.
Over the last 10 editions, amid the intermingling of race craft and sports science, pro cycling seems to have discovered the perfect equation to win on the Mur de Huy.
The race benefits one very specific type of rider — a lithe climber who can also generate an explosive burst of power.
There have been just three different winners in the men’s race since 2011, and four in the women’s event. Anna van der Breggen has the Mur de Huy so dialed in that her victory atop the hill seems like a foregone conclusion.
When you examine the race’s predictable outcome, it’s no wonder that the call to move the finish has become an annual affair.
In years past I shrugged off the calls to move the finish, chalking it up to internet whining, or offbeat hipster takes. I was also skeptical that a new finish could truly breathe new life into an 85-year-old race.
What changed my mind?
Look no further than Amstel Gold Race as proof that a new finishing format — one that ditches the leg-cracking climb — can breathe new life into a decades-old race.
We all remember the old route, which finished atop the Cauberg, and how the favorites would play the waiting game until the base of the climb.
Like Flèche, the old Amstel was often decided by a turn of speed on a small patch of road; it did not feel like the product of 200 kilometers of positioning battles and strategic gameplay.
And then, in 2017 organizers ditched the final ascent of the Cauberg, and instead moved the finish line to a point 5km after the final ascent of the Bemeleberg.
That tweak has done wonders, and now, Amstel Gold Race is perhaps the most thrilling and unpredictable one-day race on the calendar.
Look no further than the last two editions as proof. Mathieu van der Poel’s amazing win from 2019 is worthy of that 100th rewatch on YouTube, and Kasia Niewiadoma’s victory that year was a byproduct of emotion and pain.
This year the UCI had to haul out an electron microscope to declare Wout van Aert the winner, and Marianne Vos’ victory came after an epic stare-down between Niewiadoma and Elisa Longo Borghini.
Nothing about these four races felt predictable or contrived.
Plus, the removal of the Cauberg has opened the door for burly stars of the cobbled classics to factor into the finale alongside the svelte climbers and sprinters. The last four winners of Amstel Gold Race would be equally as dangerous at Paris-Roubaix.
Could a course overhaul at Flèche produce a similarly unpredictable and exciting outcome?
Would removing the slog up the Mur de Huy convince Wout van Aert or Peter Sagan to extend their respective classics campaigns by three additional days?
Stranger things have happened in bike racing.
The biggest question in my mind is where to relocate the finish.
These days the race concludes with the punishing circuit around Huy that takes in the Côte d’Ereffe, Côte de Cherave, and then the Mur de Huy. Ending the race in downtown Huy after a final battle on the Côte de Cherave is unlikely to produce a decisive battle, or a will-they-or-won’t-they chase into town.
And routing the race into Huy from the north would likely cause a traffic nightmare for those fans coming to see the race.
My take? Send them up the Mur de Huy one final time, and then have the riders chase each other back into town for a sprint amongst the best right at the base of the climb. The best climbers would attack over the hill, forcing the others to pursue, setting up a frantic chase into downtown Huy.
I’d place the finish right at the bottom of the Mur de Huy, of course.
That way, our Belgian midweek partiers have time to stumble their way down the Chemin des Chappelles, past the churches and driveways, down into the heart of Huy, to keep the rager going well into the evening.
The last thing I want is for the Mur de Huy’s party to end.