The ‘spring’ classics get started Wednesday with Ardennes race La Flèche Wallonne, and while defending champion Julian Alaphilippe won’t be there, the savage slopes of the Mur de Huy remain firmly in place.
The Flèche, set in the heart of southern Belgium, typically sits in the calendar as the meat in the sandwich of its bigger Ardennes cousins Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold. However, in this year’s post-summer schedule, the race has been bumped forward to open up classics season, with Liège and Amstel following in the next weekends.
If the idea of an event typically held in April coming to your screens in late September is messing with your mind, fear not, for as the race organizers point out, the defining summit finish atop the Mur de Huy remains and is “just as steep in the autumn season,” and as ever, is set to spark fireworks.
As always, the Flèche Wallonne will likely come down to the leg-trembling, slow-motion sprint to the finish line perched on the crest of the 1.3-kilometer Mur de Huy. While the climb averages “only” 9.6 percent gradient, it kicks up to nearly 25 percent through the middle and final sections and sees the race-winning move play out at half-speed as riders haul their machines up the “wall” of Huy.
While the race takes in 202 kilometers of rolling Ardennes hills, the opening hours serve merely to take the zip out of the legs rather than to spark race-winning attacks. With the Mur so staggeringly hard, the favorites typically save their bullets as the peloton passes through the three closing circuits that mark the back-half of the race and which includes two nerve-testing preview ascents of the climb before the third and final battle on its slopes.
With the majority of the field transferring straight from Sunday’s tough Imola world championships race, the fearsome summit finish could prove a test of durability and recoverability as much as pure explosiveness.
Riders to watch
For the past six years, the battle to the top of the Mur has been dominated by just two men: Alejandro Valverde, the 2014-2017 champion, and Julian Alaphilippe, winner for the past two years.
With Valverde cooling his jets in anticipation of Liège-Bastogne-Liège this coming weekend and Alaphilippe scrapping his planned appearance as he recuperates from digging into his mental and physical reserves at the world championships, the 2020 Flèche is set to see the crowning of a new “King of Huy.”
Among those set to go toe-to-toe in the hilltop sprint are Tour de France champ Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Marc Hirschi (Sunweb), hot off the back of a stellar Tour and world championship bronze medal, Ardennes specialist Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), and on-form puncheur Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers).
Hirschi could be the main man to keep tabs on when the peloton hits the Mur for the final time. The Swissman is on a roll having attacked relentlessly through the Tour to take the “most combative rider” award and scoop a stage win, and was one of the first to kick in an effort to follow Alaphillipe when he launched his worlds-winning move on the steep climb of the Gallisterna on Sunday. Hirschi has never raced La Flèche before, but he’s got the momentum and the mojo to take a win.
If we’re talking about on-form Tour riders, it would be rude not to mention Pogačar. The Slovenian leads a strong team including Sergio Henao and Rui Costa, and seems capable of doing anything. After his aggressive move at the worlds and that Tour de France time trial, don’t rule the 22-year-old out of being first to the line atop the Mur.
Martin is the only one of the four favorites to have sat out the worlds as he nursed the fractured sacrum that plagued him throughout the Tour. However, with three podium finishes including the narrowest of losses to Valverde in 2017, the Irishman has the clout to deliver – provided he is fully recovered.
Kwiatkowski is another veteran of La Flèche having finished three times in the top-10. Along with Hirschi, the punchy Pole was one of the few able to initially respond to Alaphilippe’s winning kick in Imola, and is looking back to his Milano-Sanremo and words winning best.
Others to watch out for are GC stars Daniel Martinez (EF Pro Cycling) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren), both not so well known for their one-day palmarès, but both packing three successful weeks at the Tour and boasting the explosivity needed to punch clear on the steepest ramps of the Huy.
2019 Tour winner Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) was originally slated to take the start, though the team has yet to confirm if the young Colombian is back to form after the back issues that led to his Tour de France collapse.
A host of youthful talents will be representing the U.S., including Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), Ian Garrison (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo), Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar), and Will Barta (CCC Team), along with veterans Alex Howes (EF Pro Cycling) and Ben King (NTT Pro Cycling).
How to watch
The race will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Gold in the U.S. and on FloBikes in Canada. Eurosport and GCN Race TV carry the action for viewers in Europe, which is scheduled to finish at around 16:30 CET / 10:30 ET.