It might be a midweek race but the Flèche Wallonne is big classic thanks its history and its finish. The race heads across the Belgian Ardennes before the finish on the vicious Mur de Huy with a gradient that can reach 26%.
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 start is in Charleroi, once an important mining and industrial town and now a place where the Wikipedia page lists unflattering tales of municipal corruption, serial killers and suicide bombers alongside the usual history and statistics. The 194km race quickly heads east towards Huy.
The race reaches Huy after about 70km 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 but 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 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.
Most locals prefer the cable car although a helicopter crashed into the cables a few days ago.
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 the 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.
- I searched my photo library for a good photo but nothing stood out to quite capture the gradient. Every single rider going up, men and women, had pain etched on their face. Only the winner found time for a smile and a look of relief, before usually collapsing on the bike and needing a helper to get them off their bike.
Today should be part-revenge of malfunctioning legs and tactical blunders from the Amstel and tune-up ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège this Sunday. You can download the full startlist here (PDF).
My pick is Joaquim Rodridguez ahead of Jelle Vanendert. But Rodriguez complained of the cold on Sunday and will have to pack an extra layer.
Philippe Gilbert did look stronger in the Amstel but I think the Mur will be too much of a test but suddenly he’s BMC’s best contender given past winner Cadel Evans is sick.
Looking back to Sunday Enrico Gasparotto is good for uphill finishes but with a sprint but this is a climb. Several others of the top finishers from the Amstel could be up there. Also look for Dan Martin and Rinaldo Nocentini who both do well uphill even if wins are rare. Alejandro Valverde came up a bit short last Sunday too but the 200km today might suit him more. Sky could get something as they have Uran, plus Henao and Nordhaug who made the lead group last Sunday only to crash. And Frank Schleck is getting back into shape.
There’s the women’s race on too. If you look at the map above and chop off the segment from Charleroi to Huy then you get the women’s race, 123km over the two loops around Huy. Shorter but more concentrated in hills. I like the way it is run at the same time and how the winner will later share the podium with the men’s victor.
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 and the race was long run on a Sunday and nudged 300km (whilst sister Ardennes races Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a mid-week race). Today the format seems fixed at 200km with Huy 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.
It will be overcast with the chance of rain showers increasing during the afternoon. A high of 9C (48F). Winds from the South at 25 to 35 km/h are noticeable in exposed parts but route is through valleys and woodland so the wind is not the factor it can be in other classics, although there are some exposed sections up on the ridges.
The video feed will start at 2.00pm Euro time and you’ll find it on RTBF and Sporza. Eurosport also start broadcasting. One hour later French TV will pick up coverage at 3.00pm. The finish is expected between 4.15pm and 4.45pm but of course it could be earlier or later.
It is also being shown live in the following countries:
I perhaps wouldn’t book the afternoon off for this and if there will be three hours of coverage, 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.
Finally this is the only race to feature seals. The race finishes next to a small amusement park which includes some performing seals. Like many a race when the top-10 is displayed on screen it is with the backdrop of a helicopter shot of the landscape only this time the cameraman picks out the watery mammals in their tank.