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Fleche Wallonne: New climb adds twist to Mur finale

Flèche Wallonne organizers added a new climb near the finish of Wednesday's race, but the race could still be decided on the Mur de Huy

The Amaury Sports Organisation is often accused of being stodgy, out of touch, arrogant, and, if you believe the complaints of team owners trying to get a piece of their TV revenues, the main impediment holding back the evolution of cycling.

But the owner of the Tour de France and a mix of one-day and week-long stage races has done more than its fair share to prop up cycling, saving such races as Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné from oblivion. ASO has continued to add new twists to its respective races, while trying to respect the traditions of the sport without forgetting the modern audience — never an easy balance. Think cobblestones in the first week of the Tour de France and the climb-fest that is now synonymous with the Vuelta a España (ASO purchased the Vuelta in 2008 and took full control in 2014).

As the owner of a trio of spring classics — Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — ASO has helped to promote the recent boom and interest in the one-day races. While Roubaix remains eternal, ASO hasn’t been shy about shaking up both Flèche and Liège to keep things interesting. In 2008, it added the Roche aux Faucons at 17 kilometers from the Liège finale to open up the Belgian monument.

For 2015, ASO is tweaking the formula at Flèche Wallonne in a bid to add another layer of surprise, the Cote de Cherave with 5km to go, into what’s become a predictable road map to the approach to the decisive Mur de Huy.

The short but steep climb will certainly keep the favorites on their toes, meaning that it might not all come down to the final charge up the Mur de Huy. It might not change anything, but no one can accuse ASO of resting on its laurels.

Fresh twist: A new climb before the Mur

Flèche Wallonne is synonymous with the Mur de Huy, the emblematic “wall” on an escarpment above the riverside town of Huy deep in the Belgian Ardennes. The finish line is on the third passage up the Mur in a series of loops. The roadway is nothing spectacular, passing through a residential neighborhood and a series of chapels to a church atop the hill, but what it lacks in setting it makes up for in steepness. Its average grade of 9.6 percent is deceiving, because the 1.3km climb features ramps as steep as 17 percent, with one sector on a switchback at 26 percent.

Timing is everything on the explosive Mur. If a rider attacks too soon, he will inevitably run out of gas and get reeled in. Leaving too late is also a danger. The decisive surge comes in a sweet spot after a steep corner with about 450 meters to go.

The Flèche route has evolved over the years, and organizers have thrown in a few new hurdles over the past decade or so to try to spice up the finale. The race invariably comes down to the final assault of the Mur, but the addition of the new climb could throw a wrench in the traditional game plan. The Cote de Cherave (1.3km at 8.1 percent) could give wings to early breakaways as well as serve to bust up the main pack. Riders will be desperate to stay at the front and avoid getting gapped in the approach to the Mur.

The favorites: Usual suspects

Take a glance at the results sheet from Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, and you’ll quickly have an idea of who will likely win Flèche.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) returns as defending champion, and looks to be on top form, but right behind him is another dozen riders who will be elbowing their way to front position at the base of the Mur.

World champ and Amstel Gold winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) will be trying to become the first world champion to win since Cadel Evans in 2010. Cannondale-Garmin brings a strong squad, with last year’s runner-up Daniel Martin poised for a win.

Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) will be hoping to shed some bad luck from the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), and will want to capitalize on his good form. Former winners Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) will need to be on their best to have hopes of winning.

It will be interesting to see how Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) can handle the Mur. After podiums at Milano-Sanremo and Amstel Gold, he’s clearly taken a step up, but the Mur might be a touch too explosive for his style of riding. Orica also brings Michael Albasini and Simon Yates for its solid Ardennes squad.

The Ardennes see the appearance of a few GC riders, such as Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), and Chris Froome (Sky). The hillier terrain favors them, but Nibali is the top rider of these three when it comes to one-day racing. Sunday’s Liège is even better for these types of riders, but they could deliver a surprise Wednesday.

Ardennes double: A rare feat

Only seven riders have pulled off the Ardennes doubles, with victories in both Flèche and Liège. Three riders did it over the past decade, with Davide Rebellin in 2004, Valverde in 2006, and Gilbert in 2011. Rebellin and Gilbert also won the Amstel Gold Race in their respective streaks. Ferdi Kubler is the only rider to do it two years in a row, in 1951 and 1952. Stans Ockers managed it in 1955, Eddy Merckx in 1972, and Moreno Argentin in 1991.

And Kwiatkowski? He’s done well at Flèche, and will now have the experience to know not to go too soon on the Mur de Huy. Perhaps it’s the start of a new Ardennes run.

Women’s race: No Vos

With the absence of five-time Flèche Wallonne winner Marianne Vos (2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2013), the race could be wide open when the best of the women’s peloton takes on the World Cup-level race. Without her prolific Rabo-Liv teammate, world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot will have to defend her 2014 title with one less arrow in the quiver.

Wearing the rainbow jersey, the 23-year-old Frenchwomen will be marked from the start. England’s Lizzie Armitstead (Boels Dolmans), runner-up last year at the top of the Mur de Huy, has already notched three wins this season. Armitstead’s American teammate Evelyn Stevens, winner of the 2012 Flèche, could also pose a threat, though she has yet to win a race this season, aside from the team time trial at the Women’s Tour of New Zealand.

Perhaps Italian rider Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-Honda) will pose the most formidable challenge to the Boels-Dolmans ladies. She’s on good form, having won the women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) in a solo move earlier this month. Plus, she knows how to ride well at Flèche, placing second in 2013 and third in 2014.

Weather: No rain, light wind

The mild weather enjoyed so far through the spring classics continues Wednesday, with forecasted highs in the mid-60s under mostly sunny skies. Light northerly winds of about 6 mph will pick up in the afternoon, meaning a slight tailwind on the run onto the final assault of the Mur de Huy.

History lesson: Lots of Belgians, and one American

Flèche Wallonne (the Walloon arrow) is a relatively new addition into the spring classics schedule, with its first edition in 1936. While not on par with such monuments as Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Milano-Sanremo, the race is still considered quite prestigious among the peloton. The distinctive Mur de Huy has been the race finale since 1983.

Belgians lead the palmares of most victories, with 38. Italians are second with 18, but Spain has won four of the last nine editions, including the past three: Rodríguez in 2012, Dani Moreno in 2013, and Valverde last year. Australian Cadel Evans won in the rainbow jersey in 2010. The lone American? Lance Armstrong in 1996.

VeloNews’ pick: the Green Bullet

Valverde looks to be hitting peak form just in time for the Ardennes. His close second in the bunch sprint at Amstel Gold Race on Sunday confirmed his condition. Always a consistent performer in the hilly classics, Valverde has the experience and depth to know when to attack. Timing is everything on the Mur, and as defending champion, he knows when to open up the legs. Martin will be right there as well.

Outsider: A breakaway?

Breakaways almost never stick at Flèche, but one just might this year with the new approach to the Mur. Smaller teams will be slotting in riders, so watch out for attackers such as Luis Maté (Cofidis), Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty), or Pierrick Fédrigo (Bretagne-Seche Environnment) to slip away early. It’s a long shot a break would stay clear of the chasing might of the WorldTour teams, but someone’s going to try.

79th Fleche Wallonne

Waremme to Mur de Huy, 205.5km — 25 teams, 200 starters (men’s race)