22 April 2015
In between Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we’ll find Flèche Wallonne. This is the 79th edition of the race. Usually, it all comes down to Mur de Huy but this year might be different. More on that later.
Compared to last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne is not nearly as technical. There are a lot less climbs to overcome as well. However, Mur de Huy is much steeper than Cauberg and, with the finishing line placed at the top of the climb, much more crucial for the final outcome.
The riders face Mur de Huy twice before heading out on the last lap. Even though this feared climb is only 1.3 km long, its average gradient of nearly 10 % will make a huge impact after over 200 km in the saddle. The maximum gradients hit 19 % towards the top. Usually, it’s all back together as the peloton starts on Mur de Huy for the last time. Not since Igor Astarloa won in 2003 has a break made it all the way. Many have, rightfully, criticized Flèche Wallonne for being too boring to watch. This year, the organizers have listened and decided to add another climb close to the line.
Côte de Cherave is now included on the final lap. The ascent starts with 6.8 km to go as the riders cross the railroad tracks. The 1.3 km towards the top have an average gradient of 8.1 % with parts of 13 %. Those riders who are not punchy enough to challenge the top favorites, now have a golden opportunity to get a gap before starting on Mur de Huy. It would be a big surprise not to see any attacks on this climb. After a fast descent, the following 2 km take place alongside La Meuse. Soon after passing the 2-km-to-go-banner, the riders turn right in the roundabout. A few hundred meters later, they turn left in another roundabout. This is where Mur de Huy begins. It’s crucial to be well-positioned at this point. If you’re not amongst the first 5-8 riders when the road narrows on the final kilometer, it will be extremely difficult to move up in the peloton. Just ask Daniel Martin. In 2013, the Irishman was, by far, the fastest rider on the last 200 meters. However, he was too far back to finish better than 4th after Dani Moreno. The last 100 meters only kick up with 6 %, giving fast riders a last chance to fight for podium.
Given his recent performances, and the fact that he won Flèche Wallonne in 2014, Alejandro Valverde has to be the prime pick. He’s amongst the best puncheurs in the peloton and he’s very fast on the line. Last year, he had no problems distancing all his rivals on the last steep part. This year, he seems to be even stronger. Last Sunday, Valverde easily made his way back to the peloton after an ill-timed mechanical problem. At the bottom of Cauberg. He got boxed in but he still managed to bridge to Gilbert and Matthews. In the sprint, the Spaniard lacked a little speed after covering so much ground but he still managed to finish 2nd. If it all comes down to Mur de Huy again this year, very few riders will be able to prevent Alejandro Valverde from taking his third win in Flèche Wallonne.
One of the biggest threats to Valverde is Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. For once, he didn’t suffer any bad luck in Amstel Gold Race. He didn’t mingle with the best riders on Cauberg, but he did seem very comfortable on the bike all day. I wouldn’t be surprised if Purito intentionally held back a little, saving his legs for Flèche Wallonne and especially Liège-Bastonge-Liège on Sunday. In the last decade, there haven’t been many riders able to match Purito’s kick on the short and steep climbs. The pint-sized Spaniard is in a league of his own when he’s at 100 %. He finished 2nd twice in this race before winning it in 2012. The last two years, crashes in Amstel Gold Race have hampered his chances. This year, Purito seems to be in great condition. He proved in Vuelta al Pais Vasco that he’s very strong right now. In Giampaolo Caruso and Dani Moreno (winner of Flèche Wallonne in 2013), Purito has the best possible support on the last 10 km. I would imagine Caruso to launch an attack on Côte de Cherave, letting the other teams do the chasing. Then, if it comes back together, Moreno can set up Purito to attack with 150-200 meters to go.
Daniel Martin always performs well in the Ardennes Classics. He has been amongst the best riders on Mur de Huy the last two years. It would be a surprise not to see him fight for win this time. He may not be able to match Valverde or Purito when they kick on the steepest parts but, due to his fast finish, Martin will be able to cover a lot of ground on the last 100 meters. Just like he did in 2013. Last year, he finished 2nd in Flèche Wallonne. If everything works out for the Irishman, he could very well end on the top of the podium this Wednesday. Cannondale-Garmin also has Tom-Jelte Slagter who should be able to do well in this race. Like with Caruso, I think Slagter might try to move on Côte de Cherave to get an early advantage before starting on Mur de Huy.
Former winner of this race, Philippe Gilbert, is definitely a strong candidate as well. However, he doesn’t seem to be as good on the steep gradients as he was in the past. Last year, he left everyone behind on Cauberg to win Amstel Gold Race. In Flèche Wallonne though, he didn’t have the legs to follow the best riders on Mur de Huy and finished 10th. I would imagine a similar result today. Unless of course, Gilbert decides to put it all on the line and attack already on Côte de Cherave. If the Belgian starts on Mur de Huy with a gap to the top favorites, he’ll be very difficult to catch before the finishing line.
The same goes for Michal Kwiatkowski. He’s very good on these kinds of climbs but he’s not nearly as punchy as riders like Valverde, Purito or Dan Martin. Still, Kwiatkowski has managed to finish 5th and 3rd the last two years. Personally, I doubt Kwiatkowski will win Flèche Wallonne this year. I simply can’t see him distancing his rivals on the steep parts. His spring season is already a success after winning Amstel Gold Race. I wouldn’t be surprised, if he tried to attack on Côte de Cherave in order to anticipate the action on Mur de Huy. The world champion is one of the best descenders in the peloton. If he gets away over the top of Côte de Cherave, he may be able to start on Muy de Huy with a big enough gap to make it all the way.
This year, I have very high expectations to Sergio Henao. After a horrible 2014, the Colombian is now back at full speed. In Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Henao turned out to be one of the best riders on the steep gradients. He finished 33rd in Amstel Gold Race but, like Purito, he’s much better suited for Flèche Wallonne. In 2013, Henao put up a great fight on Mur de Huy, placing 2nd after Dani Moreno. I think he’ll be up there again this year. Mur de Huy is all about timing. If you attack too early, you risk running out of energy on the last crucial part. In 2013, Henao managed his effort perfectly. If the other favorites lack a little power today, I think Sergio Henao will leave everyone behind on Mur de Huy. He’s clearly in great shape right now. Team Sky sends a very strong team to Flèche Wallonne. Nicolas Roche, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, Wout Poel and Chris Froome are all ready to spice up the race.
For Chris Froome - and the other GC candidates for this summer’s Tour de France - Flèche Wallonne also serves a very important reconnaissance. Stage 3 has the same finish with Côte de Cherave and Mur de Huy. With bonus seconds back in the Tour de France, it’s very important to know exactly how to tackle these final climbs come July.
Another interesting outsider today is Jakob Fuglsang. The Dane was very strong in Amstel Gold Race. Had BMC allowed Greg Van Avermaet to work with Fuglsang, the duo might have been able to distance the peloton and fight it out on Cauberg. It’s true that the steep gradients on Mur de Huy aren’t exactly favoring Jakob Fuglsang. However, I’m almost positive he will try an attack from a far, possibly on Côte de Cherave. He knows he can’t win if he waits for the final. Together with Vincenzo Nibali, Astana two very good cards to play in the final.
For other strong outsiders, look to Rui Costa, Nairo Quintana, Warren Barguil, Ben Hermans, Michael Albasini, Bauke Mollema, Julian Arredondo and the strong Lotto duo of Jelle Vanendert and Tim Wellens. Youngster Simon Yates proved to be very strong in Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he finished 5th overall. Usually, if you perform well in the Basque Country, you’ll do very well in Ardennes Classics too. Yates is only 22 years old, but that hasn’t prevented GreenEdge from making him their co-captain alongside Swiss veteran Michael Albasini. If Simon Yates has the same legs as he had on the steep climbs in Spain two weeks ago, he’ll be a very dangerous outsider today.