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Course Preview: It’s the Mur or nothing at Flèche Wallonne

With steep grades that puzzle the uninitiated, timing is everything to emerge victorious atop the Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne

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MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (VN) — There will be no gimmicks or novelties for the 77th Flèche Wallonne. The “Wallonne Arrow” is old-school, hard-man (and woman) Belgian hill racing in its purest form. And it’s all about one climb: the Mur de Huy.

And what a climb it is. One of the most famous walls in Europe, the short, but extremely steep Mur de Huy is the setting for the climactic shootout in the first of two Ardennes races this week that close out the spring classics.

The Mur has been the setting of the finish of Flèche Wallonne since 1983 and the race is invariably won on its knee-busting steeps.

Though not particularly long — bottom to top is only 1.3 kilometers — the gradients defy and confound the peloton’s leanest climbers. With an average grade of 9.3 percent, it’s hardly the steepest climb going, but with ramps as steep as 26 percent, the Mur is perhaps one of the most explosive.

Both men and women line up Wednesday in the penultimate spring classic on the men’s side and the fourth round of the season-long World Cup series for the women.

March to the Mur

The men’s race features 12 rated climbs, including three passages up the Mur de Huy, and nearly all of them packed into the second half of the 205km route.

One significant change for 2013 is a new start town. Instead of the longtime starting point of Charleroi, the race will now begin in Binche, a smaller, more manageable departure point compared to bustling, industrial Charleroi.

Located west of Charleroi, the new depart will add a few kilometers to the parcours, with the men’s race now stretching to 205km. The women’s race starts in Huy and features two laps over a circuit for a total of 131.5km.

The move, however, will have little or no impact on the outcome of the race, other than making it easier for the team buses to get in and out of the start area.

The approach to the Mur resembles much of the same blueprint used over the past several editions, with the course pushing east toward Huy and the first of three climbs up the wall at kilometer 108.

Early breakaways typically form, but the favorites keep their matches in the box for the final battle over two technically challenging finishing circuits. The first one, which begins with the Mur, 65.7km from the finish, is the scene for the first serious moves of the race.

After a second passage up the Mur, the course hits the meaty part of the race on a second, 31.5km circuit.

Last year, organizers changed the second, smaller circuit, routing the course across the Meuse River to the north side of the valley, hitting two new climbs and opening the race up to winds before the final assault on the Mur.

The changes last year provoked some interesting movement. A late attack by Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Lars Petter Nordhaug (then Sky) was stymied on the flats just before the final charge up the Mur, in part due to battering winds blowing down the Meuse.

Depending on race conditions, the final climbs could see some brave (perhaps foolhardy) riders trying to surprise the pack with a shot in the closing 20km.

Like any Belgian race, weather can alter things dramatically, but Wednesday’s forecast is calling for mild conditions, with mild temperatures in the upper 60s Fahrenheit and a chance of afternoon showers. Rain will slicken the roads, but conditions should be much better than what the pack saw during the northern classics.

The eternal Mur de Huy

The battle for the La Flèche Wallonne inevitably comes down to the final charge up the Mur (unless it’s 1994 and the mighty Gewiss machine is running rampant under Michele Ferrari’s care).

The climb is so steep, especially in the middle-to-upper section, with a narrow left-hander hitting 26-percent gradient, that it often takes a few cracks at Flèche before discovering the sweet spot to make a winning surge.

Early attacks are invariably reeled in, as Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), who confirmed on Sunday that he would start, discovered in 2010, when he finished a career-best third after fading late.

Leave it too late, and counter-attackers run out of pavement.

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who is at the Giro del Trentino this week, won in 2010 ahead of Contador after trying multiple times to crack the Mur’s code. Third that year was Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who broke through for a victory of his own in 2012.

It’s sometimes hard to be patient, especially when the race is on and the legs are feeling good. That’s a mistake that younger riders almost always make, so it will be interesting to see how Peter Sagan (Cannondale), making his Flèche debut after cramps zapped him Sunday at Amstel Gold Race, will be able to measure his efforts.

Timing is everything on any uphill finale. Veterans such as Rodríguez and world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) know where to make the move on the Mur.

Last year’s runner-up, Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge), surely took that to heart and will be ready to click in to attack mode at the right moment, especially with teammate Simon Gerrans skipping the race to prepare for Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.

Of course, having the legs to fend off counter-attacks and drive it home is something else entirely.

Vos top favorite with Stevens missing

Defending champion Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) will not be at the start in Huy after crashing hard in Italy last month. In her place, Marianne Vos (Rabobank) will enter as the top favorite. Stevens outkicked Vos last year for an emotional victory that earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but the Dutchwoman is on a tear this year, almost unbeatable in any major race. With four wins, Vos owns a quarter of the titles handed out to women on the Mur.

She also holds the World Cup leader’s jersey, having won two of the previous three races. Hot on Vos’ heels, however, is Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS), who’s been on the podium in every World Cup so far.

Now in its 16th edition, the women’s Flèche Wallonne has emerged as one of the most important and prestigious dates on the women’s calendar.

Much like the men’s race, the action inevitably is played out on the Mur. The course is much lumpier than in previous editions, with the race starting in Huy and heading directly into the hills — less time for positioning and more time for attacks to try and upset Vos’ stranglehold on the climb she has ruled for so long.