It might be a midweek race but the Flèche Wallonne is big classic thanks its history and famous finish. The race heads across the Belgian Ardennes before tackling the vicious Mur de Huy with a gradient that can reach 26%.
Here’s the preview for Wednesday’s race and note the late finish on TV mentioned below.
The name means “Walloon Arrow”, the race shoots across Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking half, in particular in the Ardennes area. This is a hilly area with winding river valleys, ridges and dense woodland that reaches into France and Luxembourg. In years past it has been the place of military struggle including big battles in World War Two, notably the Battle of the Bulge. Today it is part of Europe’s rust belt, towns that once thrived thanks to steel mills and coal mines are on the slide.
The Route: The start is in Biche whose motto appropriately is “Further” since the start has been moved from Charleroi, meaning an extra 11km more than last year.
- Km 76.5 – Côte de Naninne – 2.6 km climb to 3.7 %
- Km 90.0 – Côte de Groynne – 2.0 km climb to 3.5 %
- Km 108.5 – Mur de Huy – 1.3 km climb to 9.3 %
- Km 127.5 – Côte d’Ereffe – 2.1 km climb to 5.9 %
- Km 146.0 – Côte de Peu d’Eau – 2.7 km climb to 3.9 %
- Km 151.0 – Côte de Bellaire – 1.0 km climb to 6.8 %
- Km 158.5 – Côte de Bohisseau – 1.3 km climb to 7.6 %
- Km 161.5 – Côte de Bousalle – 1.7 km climb to 4.9 %
- Km 173.5 – Mur de Huy – 1.3 km climb to 9.3 %
- Km 190.0 – Côte d’Amay – 1.5 km climb to 6.7 %
- Km 196.5 – Côte de Villers-le-Bouillet – 1.2 km climb to 7.5 %
- Km 205.0 – Mur de Huy – 1.3 km climb to 9.3 %
The race reaches Huy after 107km and tackles the Mur (the wall) for the first time before looping around for more climbs, then back to Huy for a second time up the Mur before more climbing and then the finish up the Mur.
For all the climbs, everything seems to come down to the final climb. I can’t remember the last time a breakaway stayed away. The organisers have constantly played with the finish to help break up the race and this year is no exception although of course the Mur de Huy remains. Several teams know that if they can bring their leader to the foot of the final climb then they have a strong chance of victory.
Huy is a small town on the river Meuse, scenic in places but spoilt by the town’s nuclear power plant and its giant cooling towers. The town is flanked by steep valley walls. The real name of the road Mur de Huy is the Chemin des Chapelles and the hill is called Mont Mosan. But cycle races have a way of ignoring local labels and renaming places to make them sound grander, after all mur (wall) sounds better than chemin, a mere path. But it’s legitimate, the climb will take your breath away so you might as well re-appropriate its name. In fact it’s so steep there’s a cable car to take locals up to the top.
1300m long with an average gradient of 9.3% does not sound too bad. But beware the average as this climb starts off slow when riders pass under the flamme rouge and then rises up. Take the inside line on one of the corners and the slope reaches 26% and if you have the luxury of choosing your line then it is still 19%… but longer. The road is narrow too meaning few get to pick their line.
Riders will use gears like 39×25 or even 27 for the climb. Once you reach the last 300m the gradient eases up and some have been known to deploy the big ring. When it comes to the finish the effort is supreme and requires maximal effort but also supreme restraint. Ideally you want to be the first to surge clear but to leave the effort as late as possible. Contradictory? Yes, everyone will be at their absolute max going to the finish line and even the slightest acceleration requires a big increase in force. Launch too early and you will blow. But if you cannot follow the leaders as soon as the steep part starts then you’re out of it.
This makes the final two minutes extremely complicated as riders try to balance lactic acid and oxygen debt with tactical finesse whilst surveying their rivals. If you watch on TV I don’t think there’s another race where the riders all have such a pained look on their faces.
Today should be part-revenge of malfunctioning legs and tactical blunders from the Amstel Gold Race and tune-up ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège this Sunday.
Joaquim Rodridguez would be the obvious pick but a crash and muscle injury in the Amstel means he could be missing the force needed the most forceful race of the year. Philippe Gilbert is looking stronger with every race but his powerful attack on the Cauberg didn’t quite last long enough. Alejandro Valverde completes my trio of prime picks, the Spaniard can climb and sprint and finished on the podium last Sunday. It’s possible he’s on the podium for all three races in the Ardennes.
We had a wall-like finish in the Tour of the Basque Country where Sky’s Sergio Henao just beat Ag2r’s Carlos Betancur. Both are back and suited to this kind of finish. The same for Richie Porte and Nairo Quintana who fought for the overall in that race.
Last year Ryder Hesjedal tried to attack before the Mur de Huy finish but got reeled in but seemed confident in the Amstel but we could see his team mate Dan Martin as he “enjoys” these lactic moments. Roman Kreuziger is an obvious name but that’s the point, he won’t get given any room and will have to take on the others side by side this time, perhaps Simon Gerrans is a better pick but he’s only a provisional starter. Peter Sagan cramped up last Sunday but surely this hill is too much, or can he match the climbers and then outsprint them as the slope eases, after all he was strong on the 27% slopes of Sant Elpidio? Alberto Contador is racing but says he is tired, is this real or a bluff? If not see Igor Anton of Euskaltel or Astana’s Jacob Fuglsang.
There’s the women’s race on too. Rather than start in Binche and head across the region, the women start in Huy and do a 131.5km over the two loops around Huy, it’s shorter but more concentrated in hills. It’s a clever idea to combine the men’s and women’s race and later the women’s winner share the podium with the male victor. The women’s race is expected to finish around 3.30pm. Will Marianne Vos win? This might sound like a rhetorical question but she was beaten last year.
The men’s winner gets €16,000 with prizes down to €400 for 20th place, the total prize fund is €40,000. For the women first prize is €1,128 and 20th place wins €84, a total prize fund of €5130. I double-checked the numbers.
However whilst this is very unequal, let’s note there is a good women’s race on a prime circuit in front a sizeable crowd. This an excellent “shop window” for women’s sport. If the gulf between prizes is big at least there is a race in the first place and the women’s race programme just doesn’t have as many sponsors as the men’s race. There’s no women’s Amstel or Liège-Bastogne-Liège at all this week.
The race has changed constantly over the years. We go back to the 1930s when newspaper Les Sports wanted to promote itself and hit on the idea of a race across the region. The start and finish points have changed too many times to list. The race was long run on a Sunday and nudged 300km (whilst sister race Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a mid-week race). Today the format seems fixed at 200km and the Mur de Huy is a fixture since 1983.
Four riders have won the race three times: Marcel Kint, Eddy Merckx, Moreno Argentin and Davide Rebellin. Spare a thought for riders doing the race until the early 1990s when five, six or seven speed gears was as good as it got. With 10 or 11 speed today things are a bit easier.
22°C (72°F) and sunny skies. Importantly a southerly wind will reach 40km/h which means a crosswind for the first part of the race and then a headwind on the final circuit for the section of road that heads towards Huy.
The video feed will start at 3.00pm Euro time and you’ll find it on local channels RTBF and Sporza and Eurosport also start broadcasting too. The finish is expected between 4.50pm and 5.20pm but of course it could be earlier or later.
The past suggests the final 45 minutes are where the action is concentrated. Indeed sometimes just the last 10 minutes are enough to watch the day’s sport although like all races you might want to tune into watch the pace and tension rise to the crescendo