Flèche Wallonne Preview

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Mur de Huy

The Route: 198.5km and that wall. It’s a 197km warm-up and then the world hill climb championships. After a start in Seraing the race heads south and then loops around some of this Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège route including the climb of La Redoute before heading west 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 becoming a fixture. Introduction in 2015 it’s just 5.5km from the finish and 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 39×27 or 36×25 which is low but in yesterday’s Tour of the Alps finish at the Alpe di Pampeago many had 36×30, the difference is today’s finish is so short, just 1.3km. 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 and momentum 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.

The Contenders

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is the prime pick. He’s won it for the last four years in a row and returns in sizzling form hoping to win a sixth time as he won this race for the first time way back in 2006. He has a good team to protect him too with Mikel Landa as a second option. 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 current form it’s hard to look past him. He was attacking in the Amstel and seemed at one point to be forcing the pedals around in a much slower cadence than his usual style but this is like trying to spot a “tell” on a poker player, we’re scratching around for body language clues.

  • As for the rest, how to beat Valverde? Other teams know Movistar will work for Valverde and an uphill sprint so they have an interest in firing off some riders up the road to force Movistar to chase because as good as the Spanish team are, they lack a few watts for the flat roads and one team cannot control everything.

Julian Alaphilippe is next, he’s as punchy as Valverde for a finish like this but he’s not as wise or cunning and is prone to wasting energy from time to time, nothing spectacular and when he was in the wrong place in last Sunday’s Amstel when the moves went he was able to go the long way around to get across to the lead group. So he can correct for a mistake or two. Philippe Gilbert races but doesn’t quite have that zip in his legs any more and Pieter Serry is looking strong but likely to work for Alaphilippe.

Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing) made the podium last year, a surprise result before establishing himself with a streak of wins last summer, most of which involved uphill finishes and he’s back in form, fourth in the Eibar finish of the Basque Country.

Dan Martin ought to be a strong pick, he’s been on the podium here and returns wiser. Only since his move to UAE-Emirates he’s not looked as convincing, he’s not had the early season wins of the past. So rather than look for a win today, we’ll see instead if he’s got what it takes to win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège this Sunday. Team mate Rui Costa could place but as ever has a low win rate.

Bahrain-Merida bring a stack of contenders but will they try to shape the race with Vincenzo Nibali, Enrico Gasparotto and the Izagirre brothers or are they just along for the ride ahead of Sunday’s race to Liége? Posing the question seems to invite doubt as to whether they’ll win but Gasparotto looks the best pick to snipe a podium win.

Tim Wellens could try another attack. He’s done it before in this race and if it didn’t work it enlivened the race and with Wellens not every move works but increasingly he’s winning more and more. He’ll be motivated, he’s bought land by Côte de Cherave to build a house on. Lotto-Soudal bring a very strong team to the Ardennes with Tiesj Benoot quiet in the Amstel but Bjorg Lambrecht is promising and Jelle Vanendert experienced.

Sergio Henao has been second here before and is Team Sky’s obvious pick. Michał Kwiatkowski is another rider who has been in the top-10 but unlike his Colombian team mate he’s quite never looked like winning it in the uphill sprint but he could try a more long range attack, he’d be hard to bring back.

EF-Drapac have Rigoberto Uràn and Michael Woods, both good on paper for this finish but their results have been discreet this season so a top-10 is possible.

Finally some more names. Astana are looking strong everywhere but they probably lack a specialist for today’s uphill finish, they’re more suited to Liège. Can Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) climb and sprint here? History says no based on past performances but this climb should just be at the frontier of his abilities. Wanty-Gobert’s playwright and philosphy master Guillaume Martin could place the top-10 if he can be delivered by his team into the finish. Michael Albasini (Mitchelton-Scott) looked off the pace in the Amstel Gold Race. FDJ pairing David Gaudu and Rudy Molard both made the top-10 last year and have progressed since. Molard was active in the Amstel last weekend. Warren Barguil is still hunting for a result, as are his Fortuneo-Samsic team who are without a win this season. He was sixth last year and could place again but it feels like the climb is too short for him. Romain Bardet races and could surprise in this finish while Ag2r La Mondiale team mate Alexis Vuillermoz is an outside pick too.

Alejandro Valverde
Julian Alaphilippe
Dylan Teuns, Sergio Henao
Wellens, Martin, Gasparotto

Weather: warm and sunny and a top temperature of 26°C.

TV: the finish is forecast for 4.20pm CEST and they’ll go up the Mur for the penultimate time around 3.40pm, tune in before then to see who is floating and who is struggling.

The women’s Flèche Wallonne finishes at 2.00pm and once again it’s how to stop the regular winner and dominant favourite in Anna van der Breggen and if she can’t win, her team mate Chantal Blaak will.

Monty April 18, 2018 at 11:56 am

Does anyone know where to watch it in the UK as Eurosport is not showing it till 8pm? Thanks
Money is on valverde as he seems to be on the best form out of the contenders. Also why is primoz roglic not racing as he seemed to be the only one able to be with alaphillipe in itzulia, is it too steep for him?

Fred April 18, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Looks the same on ES Player, with experience I will do some channel hopping around 2pm. Eurosport have a habit of garbage scheduling.

Fred April 18, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Steephill TV showing ES coverage Live at 2pm CET.

Anonymous April 18, 2018 at 12:22 pm

It is live on Eurosport 1 from 13h30 BST – immediately after TOTA

Wallers April 18, 2018 at 1:33 pm

As mentioned its live on Eurosport 1 HD from 13.30 BST

paddydunne April 18, 2018 at 1:04 pm

Would love to see Tim Wellens get the win.Figuring Lotto stronger than Movistar in the One day races. But not holding me breath. Valverde looks to strong. Managed to sneak a ride in the area couple of weekends ago the weather was glorious. Hopefully more of the same for today and L-B-L

J Evans April 18, 2018 at 1:33 pm

The long range attack is unlikely to work, but for most riders it’s the only hope of winning. It has worked in the past, however, I suspect a Valverde-led queue.

RQS April 18, 2018 at 2:30 pm

Sod’s Law gives Phil Gil the win followed by Kwiatkowski, or something like that.

I agree that neither has shown any propensity to win a classic this season.

Sunday’s race likely means that the some riders will be keeping their powder dry for then – this may make Sod’s Law more likely. Valverde has looked sluggish this year (for his high standards) and so I fancy an ‘upset’.

Michael B April 18, 2018 at 3:12 pm

It’s difficult to see past Valverde unless something goes drastically wrong for him. Alaphilippe and Tuens are the next wave of young talent, so maybe they could spring a surprise, but I still can’t see past Valverde unless he makes a mistake or has a mechanical. It’s a shame Dan Martin’s form is poor this year as he surged so strongly last year that he could have been a lot closing to winning if he hadn’t started so far back in the pack. I can’t see a solo rider winning as they can lose so much time in the final 1km they’d need to hold a big, big lead going onto the Muur.

I know Fleche gets loads of stick, and it is predictable, but it’s a decent “highlights” race to watch on an evening, zip through to the last 20km and it’s nice to watch. There’s a place for that. I quite like the Grand Prix de Wallonie for similar reasons as you know what you’re getting – scenic, hilly races with a blockbuster finish.

CA April 18, 2018 at 5:23 pm

Looks like Alaphilippe will finish of his 26th year with a bang. Often riders’ peak years are age 27-32 (unless your name starts with Alejandro and ends in Valverde) and Alaphilippe’s earlier “struggles” to win races may just have been lack of experience, not enough racing seasons under his belt, etc.

But 2018 looks like he has taken another step up in performance. I wonder if Liege will be too far for him though.

Michael B April 19, 2018 at 11:26 pm

Great to see Alaphilippe deliver that result, here’s hoping LBL is all the better for having genuine challengers to Valverde too.

As an aside for all the excitement in the commentary about the break’s 50 second gap with 15km to go or whatever it’s obviously nowhere near enough. Even a group of 4-5 needs something like 2 minutes minimum going into the final 10km.

gabriele April 19, 2018 at 11:59 pm

So what about Schachmann?

And it’s not like the peloton played any waiting game in the final rush, quite the other way around.

On the contrary, in the previous kms the break was pushing hard, but not incredibly so, because they had the gaps and kept the distance they wanted while Landa was the only rider working behind.

It’s not only about the time gaps. Most of the riders who made a break, just give up when they’re caught or when they aren’t on the front anymore (especially if they plan to race Liège on Sunday).

Michael B April 20, 2018 at 12:29 am

Fair point about riders sitting up once caught, I agree, but it’s self evident group and solo breaks need a lot of time going into the final KM. You know wwwaaaayy more about cycling history than me, how often do breaks win Fleche?

“So what about Schachmann?” – What his result says to me is that he’s a potential future winner. Spending that energy and still coming top 10?! He’ll probably lead a team at the Ardennes at some point in the next few years.

Michael B April 20, 2018 at 12:31 am

1994 doesn’t count ha!

gabriele April 20, 2018 at 12:54 am

Some ten years later you still had breaks with Verbrugghe or Astarloa!

It’s been a systematic sprint in the last 15 years, but it’s also a vicious circle: if you think that long range action won’t succeed, no strong riders really go for it, then you get the absurd of, say, Wellens not going for an early move in a race like this…

Surely, it must also be said that with a notable breed of excellent riders with an uphill zip, more and more teams try to close down the race. Valverde, Rebellin, Gilbert, Purito, Evans, Cunego, Di Luca, Albasini, D. Martin, all of them got multiple podia and most of them sooner or later did it right and won, which means that it made sense for 2-3 strong teams to put their eggs in the sprint’s basket.
Thinking about this edition, I still struggle to see the logic of Dimension Data or Sky pulling, but, hey ok.

My point about Schachmann is that if he eventually was only 6″ back from Alaphilippe, he probably would have made it if the break had had some more, say, 20″ of advantage: they didn’t really need up to 2′ or so. And if the break itself didn’t split in the last kms before the wall, they’d have faced it with even more seconds of advantage. However, that’s just alternative universes, we’ll never know.

Michael B April 20, 2018 at 10:22 am

Yeah, like you say it’s alternative universe stuff with Schachmann, but I’d be interested to see a long, lone breakaway or even group, get onto the lower section of the Muur with 30 seconds, then it would be close, I think.

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