For a mid-week race on Wednesday, the Flèche Wallonne is one of many highlights of the year for me.
The finish is cruel, a fast blast down the valley in 53×12 before suddenly turning right and hitting the Mur de Huy, a vicious climb of just 1.3km with an average gradient of 9.8% that maxxes at 20%.
The difficulty is this combination of gradient and length. You have to be near the front of bunch when you hit the climb. This means the pace is fierce in the valley, riders jostle for position and team work counts for a lot. As the race hits the climb proper, look for two things. First, check out the houses and walls alongside the road, you can spot the gradient thanks to the building work. Next, look for anyone who attacks in the first few hundred to blow up 30 seconds later. I’ve never seen anyone lead the whole way up.
In order to win, you need to match the accelerations of others as you work your way up but without forcing the pace too hard. The steep sections mean the effort needed to open up a gap can cost a rider later on. It’s all about keeping right near the front of affairs but trying to keep a rhythm, to minimise the explosive efforts. Easier said than done.
As you near the top, now is the time to jump, to get a gap. By now everyone has gone beyond 100% and the agony on their faces is evident. Anyone who can find the energy to push will win. For the contenders, timing is everything but in reality 95% of the riders are eliminated by the Mur.
For all the action on the final climb, the rest of the race doesn’t show up too many surprises. Last year race organisers ASO re-jigged the final approach to Huy in order to break up the field. But it didn’t work. If there’s a race where you can tune in for the last 15 minutes or record the end of the race to watch later, this is it.
But maybe this time a breakaway will stay away? I find it hard because several teams know they have a leader capable of winning, for example Andy Schleck, Joaquin Rodriguez, Igor Anton already mean four teams willing to set up their leaders. Consequently they combine to put their man into place at the foot of the climb and you have several teams able to cap the lead of any breakaways and then to haul them back in at the end.
There’s also a women’s race on today and I really like the way both the winner of the men’s and women’s race get on the podium together. It’s a rare sight but a nice touch from the organisers to ensure a bit more coverage for the women.
A silly point but it’s a cliché for TV producers to cut to a helicopter shot of the finishing town as the top-10 graphic is displayed on screen. In this race it always seems that the helicopter hovers over a small zoo and in particular a small water tank where some seals or sea lions live. Normally we get a town centre, a cathedral or a mountain but for me, the aquatic mammals are the final detail of the race.
Mur is French for “wall” and flèche means “arrow”.