Five riders have won Flèche Wallonne on multiple occasions since the race first began finishing on the Mur de Huy in 1983, and thoughts will turn to two of them, in particular, when the leaders clamber up the Mur for the third and decisive time on Wednesday.
Second in Amstel Gold on Sunday, the defending champion and 2006 winner, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will be a marked man. A third victory this week would take the Spaniard level with Moreno Argentin, Eddy Merckx, Marcel Kint, and Davide Rebellin (CCC Sprandi-Polkowice), the only riders to have scored a hat-trick of Flèche wins.
The other two-time conqueror of the Mur in hearts and minds — particularly hearts — on Wednesday will be Claude Criquielion. The winner of Flèche in 1985 and 1989, Criquielion died this February, somewhat prematurely, at the age of 58.
“Claudy,” as he was known, was more familiar than anyone with the 1.3-kilometer, 9.6-percent Mur’s brutish challenge. “The Tour of Flanders has the Mur de Grammont; Amstel Gold has the Cauberg, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège has La Redoute … but the Mur de Huy is by far the hardest of the lot,” he said once.
Belgian fans will no doubt feel that a second Flèche win for Philippe Gilbert, after his 2011 success, would be the perfect homage to his countryman’s memory. Gilbert’s swashbuckling attack on the Cauberg at the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday may not have brought him victory, but it did underline the Walloon’s excellent form.
Gilbert and Valverde are two of only a small handful of riders who have mastered the delicate timing required to win on the Mur. Daniel Martin of Cannondale-Garmin is another. Having finished sixth, fourth, and second in his last three appearances, the Irishman seems poised for the logical next step — onto the highest perch of the podium. The winner of Amstel Gold and the reigning world champion, Michal Kwiatkowski, is putting together a similar sequence of results, with a fifth and a third place in his last two Flèche starts.
The Katusha pair, Joaquim Rodriguez and Dani Moreno, are also among those who have got the measure of the Mur, having won in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Katusha’s brilliant spring may be about to get even better.
Or maybe, the bouquet will go to one of the grand tour stars that are beginning to shake off their winter rust. The last two Tour de France champions, Chris Froome (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), will both be lining up in Waremme, each fresh from some intense training in Tenerife. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is also on the start-grid. At the very least, Wednesday serves as a reconnaissance mission for all three because stage 2 of this year’s Tour de France features an identical finale.
The road — or rather the Mur — will give us our answer.
Twenty-five teams: the leaders
Orica-GreenEdge: Albasini (Swi), Yates (GB)
Lotto-Soudal: Vanendert, Wellens (B)
Etixx-Quick-Step: Kwiatkowski (Pol), Martin (G), Alaphilippe (F)
Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise: De Tier, Campenaerts (B)
Wanty-Groupe Gobert: Gasparotto (I)
Ag2r La Mondiale: Betancur (Col), Nocentini (I)
Cofidis: Simon, Edet (F), Maté (Sp)
Europcar: Rolland (F)
FDJ: Vichot (F), Morabito (Swi)
Bretagne-Séché Environnement: Fédrigo, Feillu (F), Sepulveda (Arg)
Giant-Alpecin: Barguil (F)
Team Sky: Froome (GB), Roche (Irl)
Lampre-Merida: Costa (Por), Ulissi (I)
Astana Pro Team: Nibali (I), Fuglsang (Den)
LottoNL-Jumbo: Kelderman, Ten Dam (Nl)
Roompot: Hoogerland, Kreder (Nl)
Katusha: Rodriguez, Moreno (Sp)
Tinkoff-Saxo: Majka (Pol)
Movistar: Valverde (Sp), Quintana (Col)
MTN-Qhubeka: Van Rensburg (SA)
IAM Cycling: Frank, Reichenbach (Swi)
BMC Racing: Gilbert, Hermans (B), Sanchez (Sp), Van Garderen (USA)
Cannondale-Garmin: Martin (Irl), Slagter (Nl), Formolo (I)
Trek Factory Racing : Mollema (Hol), Arredondo (Col), Felline (I), Schleck (Lux)
UnitedHealthcare: Ratto (I)