The peloton’s puncheurs take center stage Wednesday for the 80th edition of Flèche Wallonne. Tweaks to the course introduced last year, including a new climb within the final 6 kilometers, did little to change the outcome on the explosive finale up the emblematic Mur de Huy.
The Mur’s official numbers — 1.3km at 9.6 percent — defy its true menace. With ramps as steep as 23 percent, conquering the “Wall of Huy” is all about timing. Go too soon, and riders come over the top. Wait too long, and it’s too late to bring back the attackers. Experience counts on the Mur, with most of the winning moves coming at a sweet spot with about 400 meters to go.
Last year, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde was victorious for the third time of his career, setting the stage for victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in his second career Ardennes double. On the women’s side, with the race now part of the UCI WorldTour calendar, Anna van der Breggen of Rabo – Liv kicked to an impressive win in 2015.
Valverde tops long list of favorites
More than a dozen riders start Wednesday with realistic chances for victory in a wide-open race. Movistar will have several cards to play, with two-time defending champ Valverde coming off two stage wins and the GC at the Vuelta a Castilla y León over the weekend. The Spanish outfit also brings former winner Dani Moreno and an improving Carlos Betancur, who was third in 2013.
“The field of contenders is completely different to what I had to face this weekend,” Valverde said. “Now it’s all about Flèche and Liège. The win? Well, we’ll see.”
Orica – GreenEdge will try to regroup after letting the Amstel Gold Race slip away Sunday. Simon Gerrans is skipping the race to save his matches for Liège, leaving Michael Matthews and consistent Flèche performer Michael Albasini leading the way (with Paris-Roubaix winner Mat Hayman to race in support).
“I don’t get many opportunities to ride for the win myself during the year,” Albasini said. “Flèche is one, and in general, I manage to score one or two wins per year with the team.”
Veterans such as Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), both former winners, hope to be up to the challenge coming from younger riders. Gilbert struggled in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, but he hopes to rebound.
“Amstel Gold didn’t go as I would have liked, but I’m taking things day by day with my fractured finger … I know the race well, I’ve won it before, and I’m hoping to have a better race Wednesday,” Gilbert said.
There are plenty of others who could win, including Etixx – Quick-Step’s Dan Martin and last year’s runner-up Julian Alaphilippe, who looks to be back on form after struggling with mononucleosis earlier this season. Etixx is also bringing Bob Jungels and Brabantse Pijl winner Petr Vakoc. Tim Wellens and Tony Gallopin lead Lotto – Soudal, while Sergio Henao looks sharp at Sky. Amstel Gold winner Enrico Gasparotto leads Wanty – Groupe Gobert, with Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL – Jumbo), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff), Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi (Lampre – Merida), and Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale) could all deliver a podium ride.
Who can stop Boels – Dolmans?
Dating back to 1998, La Flèche Feminine has emerged as one of the thrilling races on the women’s calendar. The race is 40km longer than it was in its debut and contains 11 climbs — compared to six in 2002. Big names are associated with the race, including five-time winner Marianne Vos, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, and Nicole Cooke.
The big question this year is who can stop Boels – Dolmans? The team is stacked with former winner Evelyn Stevens, Megan Guarnier, and world champion Lizzie Armitstead, who’s back in the saddle after winning the Tour of Flanders two weeks ago.
A big challenge will come from Rabo – Liv, which starts with defending champion Breggen, Ferrand-Prévot, and Vos. Emma Johansson is hot off a victory in Spain and will try to add the race to her palmares in her swansong season.
Minor tweaks to the course
At 196km, Flèche Wallonne isn’t as long or as hard as Liège, and it opens up the possibilities for more riders to dream of success. The addition of a new climb at Cote de Solières with 40km left, coupled with last year’s new climb at Cote de Cherave with 6.5km to go, make the race a touch more difficult. The race starts in Marche-en-Famenne and quickly steers into loops around Huy. The men tackle the Mur three times, with the finish atop the third ascent. The women finish on a second climb up the hill.
Ardennes double: A rare feat
Only eight riders have pulled off the Ardennes doubles, with victories in both Flèche and Liège. Four riders have done it over the past decade — Davide Rebellin in 2004, Valverde in 2006 and 2015, 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.
Weather: Sunny, clear skies
Forecasters are calling for ideal racing conditions, with sunny skies, highs in the mid-60s, and northeasterly winds up to 15kph kicking up in the afternoon.
History lesson: Lots of Belgians, and two Americans
Flèche Wallonne (the Walloon arrow) is a relatively new addition into the spring classics schedule, with roots dating back to 1936. Belgians lead the palmares on the men’s side with 38 wins. Italians are second with 18, but Spain has won four in a row: Rodríguez in 2012, Dani Moreno in 2013, and Valverde in 2014 and 2015. Vos has won a record five times. The lone Americans? Lance Armstrong in 1996 and Stevens in 2012.
80th Fleche Wallonne
Marche-en-Famenne to Mur de Huy, 196km
19th Fleche Feminine
Mur de Huy circuit, 137km