Formulaic and predictable? Yes but so are many blockbluster films and even if you can guess the ending it can still be exciting to watch. The Flèche Wallonne has become a known quantity defined by its final climb, the infernally steep Mur de Huy.
Once again Alejandro Valverde is the prime pick and the finish is forecast for 4.35pm CET. But in case you want a fuller preview, here it is…
The Route: 204.5km and that wall. It remains a 200km warm up and then the world hill climb championships. After a start in Binche the race heads north-east for loops around to Huy. The Mur de Huy is tackled three times (58km to go, 29km to and the finish). When they go up with 29km to go watch to see who looks at ease and who looks flustered as these small clues often reveal what happens later. Crucially the section after the Mur runs south-east and it’s on a plateau which means it’s perpendicular to the forecast crosswind (see forecast below) and exposed to the wind. This could be an interesting section where weaker riders or sleepy teams could be eliminated.
The Côte de Cherave is features again after its introduction in 2015. Just 5.5km from the finish, it’s 1.3km at 8% average but mostly over 10%. It’s steep, the kind where you see the gradient illustrated by the way each house is higher than the next. But it’s a wide, straight road so moves are easy to gauge.
The Finish: 1.3km at 9.6%, the Mur de Huy doesn’t sound like much. 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 only 19%… but longer. The road is very narrow so few get to pick their line.
Riders use gears like 39×25 or even a 27. Once you reach the last 300m the gradient eases up and some have been known to deploy the big ring for the final sprint. The effort is huge and requires maximal effort but also supreme restraint, ideally you want to be the first to surge clear as the road levels out but to leave this effort as late as possible. It’s all about timing as to accelerate on the steep parts requires a big increase in force and if you launch too early and you will blow. But if you cannot follow the leaders then it’s unlikely you’ll make up for lost ground, this isn’t a climb to pace yourself Froome-style.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is the prime pick. He’s won it for the last three years in a row and returns in sizzling form hoping to win a fifth time. He has a good team to protect him including past winner Dani Moreno. A certainty? It’s doesn’t exist in cycling, it’s easy to be blocked by others on the climb and maybe he simply has an off day but given his record and form it’s hard to look past him especially since this edition is without past rivals like the retired Joaquim Rodriguez, the injured challenger Julian Alaphilippe or previous winner Philippe Gilbert.
Dan Martin has finished 6th, 4th, 2nd and 3rd here and these results suggest a result is due. He’s excellent on steep finishes and has a good finishing kick. He’s taken a win already this season but his only result in the last month has been DNF in the Amstel meaning he’s picked on reputation. Petr Vakoč sometimes looks too heavy to feature here but he’s got several wins atop steep climbs and the story goes that his team asked him to do a one minute effort and they thought his powermeter was badly calibrated as the numbers looked too high, only it wasn’t as he’s that strong. Bob Jungels might prefer a long range attack.
Sergio Henao (Team Sky) has been on the podium here before and showed what he can do in the Paris-Nice finish on the Mur de Fayence where he was the best of the rest behind Simon Yates’s attack. Team mate Michał Kwiatkowski rides and is in great form as his ride in the Amstel shows but is surely better suited to Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège rather than this uphill effort but maybe he’s tempted to take a long range risk?
Michael Albasini isn’t a star pick but has a handy sprint and should be Orica-Scott’s best hope. He’s been on the podium before, is in form and in a race where experience counts for so much he could repeat another podium place if things go his way.
Cannondale-Drapac have some strong cards to play. Michael “VO2 Max” Woods can climb with the best here but he needs to have practiced the climb and studied previous editions to learn the necessary pacing. Rigoberto Uran was close to a stage win in the Tour of the Basque Country and can sprint well out of a small group.
Lotto-Soudal have several promising riders but as ever it reads like a cast of supporting actors rather than top bill riders. Jelle Vanendert has placed here before, Tim Wellens is in good shape and can try the sprint. But how do they win? Some will have to attack but no breakaway has worked in this race since 2003.
Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb) was ninth last year despite the training crash. Now he’s in better shape but is still in that “promising” phase rather than delivering and this unique finish won’t give him many chances.
UAE Emirates come with three options in Rui Costa, Diego Ulissi and Louis Meintjes all outside picks for the podium with the first two having the experience in this race.
Ag2r La Mondiale are another team with a strong squad. Romain Bardet probably has his eyes on Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it’s too steep for Pierre Latour – 19th last year – so Alexis Vuillermoz would be their pick. Only he’s supposed to be targeting the Ardennes races after a promising sixth place here in 2015 but a car crash over winter has hampered his training and he’s only been back in action in recent weeks so he’s likely short of form.
Finally Jarlinson Pantano is always exciting and seems to be even better at Trek-Segafredo.
|Dan Martin, Sergio Henao|
|Michał Kwiatkowski, Rigoberto Uran, Petr Vakoč|
|Albasini, Ulissi, Barguil, Wellens, Woods, Rui Costa, Pantano|
Weather: cool and cloudy with a top temperature of 8°C, a shock for many of the participants who have flown in from their training camps. It’ll be windy too with a 20km/h breeze from the NE gusting to 30km/h which could heat up the race.
TV: local coverage on RTBF starts at 2.15pm Euro time with the finish forecast for 4.35pm. You might be tempted just to watch the finish but it’s worth watching them climb the Mur de Huy earlier on to spot who is doing what and they’ll go up it at around 3.50pm. It’s an ASO race and notionally available on the same channel you watch the Tour de France. If not there’s Eurosport… if not you’ll find streams via cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv.
Women’s Race: Huy is not a scenic town but it’s worth visiting for the race because the Mur allows you to see the men’s race several times and the women’s race too, an estimated 15,000 people line the climb. Anna van der Breggen looks almost as certain Valverde given she’s won the two previous editions and just took the Amstel Gold Race leaving Kasia Niewiadoma, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Annemiek van Vleuten, Lizzie Deignan and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot for the podium places. The finish is forecast for 2.05pm CET.