Some call Flèche Wallonne the unofficial world championships for the puncheurs.
Others consider it one of the most difficult puzzles on the circuit. Yet once certain riders figure out the key to open the safe on the Mur de Huy, it’s even harder to steal it back.
What’s sure is that Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne is one of the highlights of the spring classics.
Here are three storylines to follow in the men’s and women’s edition of the Belgian classic:
Can Anna van der Breggen keep winning?
No one’s won more times up the Mur de Huy than Anna van der Breggen. The SD Worx star is queen of the hill, winning an unprecedented six times in a row. That’s one more than Alejandro Valverde or Marianne Vos, who’ve each won five.
Can she keep the streak alive?
It won’t be easy.
The defending world champion was suffering from a minor illness last week, and was floating off the wheels during Amstel Gold Race. Could she be cooling the jets for another charge up the Mur de Huy? We’ll see Wednesday.
Also read: Why we love Ardennes week
There are plenty of riders who want to end her domination of the Mur. SD Worx teammates Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, a two-time podium finisher, and Demi Vollering, third last year, give van der Breggen some key allies.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope), last year’s runner-up, seems overdue for a big win this season, with four top-10s in six starts. Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon SRAM Racing) seems a natural for the throne, and was third in 2017.
And there’s Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), who’s never won on the Mur in what’s one of the major races so far to evade her grip.
— FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope (@FDJ_NAqui_Fut) April 19, 2021
Will a breakaway stand a chance against the Mur de Huy?
It’s rare in the modern era for a breakaway to have any chance of even making it to the base of the Mur de Huy for the final lap, let alone have a hope of winning.
The last major breakaway to win the men’s race at Flèche Wallonne was in 2003, with Igor Astarloa winning out of a select group that attacked early. Cycling’s most infamous podium sweep came in the 1994 edition, with Gewiss in 1994. Along with teammate Evgeni Berzin and Giorgio Furlan, Moreno Argentin rode everyone off the wheel with 50km to go, and we all know — ahem — how that happened.
In today’s highly tuned peloton, it’s not uncommon for a relatively big group of 30 to 40 riders to hit the base of the Mur de Huy.
Organizers have toughened up the circuits and added two punchy climbs in a move designed to give would-be breakaway riders more wings. The determined mass of the peloton, however, usually dictates the race come down to the thrilling final stampede up the Mur between the favorites.
Could one team or individual rewrite the script? It’s hard to imagine seeing something like that Wednesday, and even less so with forecasters calling for cool temperatures, sunny skies and light breezes.
Barring a relatively large group with a few big engines on the favorites’ teams escaping on the final lap, expect to see another running of the Mur.
Who will emerge in wide-open men’s race?
The spring racing season has seen surprising parity across the elite men’s peloton.
Even ever-steady performers like Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) are all over the map in terms of results so far in 2021.
It’s hard to signal one standout favorite Wednesday, and that should make for a thrilling race.
Perennial favorites like Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) have suffered some sort of illness, crash or setback. Defending champion Marc Hirshi (UAE Emirates) is a shadow of the force he was in 2020.
Also read: Ardennes Week — sizzlers or snoozers?
So who’s on form? It’s on complete opposites on age spectrum. British sensation Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), 21, will tackle the Mur for the first time, and cannot be discounted considering the momentum he’s carrying into Flèche. The peloton’s resident “40-something” Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is also on rising form, and the five-time winner cannot be counted out.
There’s an opening for GC riders such as Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) or Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates) to leave their mark.
Without a clear favorite, the Mur is there for the taking.
Had an unwanted encounter with the asphalt on training… Not the best preparation for @flechewallonne and @LiegeBastogneL, but fortunately nothing too serious. A little road rash isn’t going to stop me! 💪 pic.twitter.com/3Q8ltKr4v2
— Philippe Gilbert (@PhilippeGilbert) April 20, 2021