Cycling rarely offers certain picks for races. A sprint finish usually has several contenders, a summit finish could go to one of several riders. Today Alejandro Valverde seems above all the rest, perfectly suited to the race, experienced thanks to past wins and in good form having just won the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon. Who or what can stop him?
The Route: 196km and that wall. It’s all about that finish but there’s plenty of climbing on the way. After a start in Marche-en-Famenne the race heads north for loops around to Huy. The Côte de Bohissau – better known to locals as La Flîme – is the longest climb, 2.4km at 5.5% with a steep middle section. The Mur de Huy is scaled three times, 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.
The Côte de Cherave is back after its introduction last year. 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. Last year Vincenzo Nibali set to work and it makes the race harder to control, the leaders have to start expending the own energy in order to be well placed for the finale but as perpetual attacker Tim Wellens showed last year, taking a few seconds over the top is not enough as the demanding finish will humiliate anyone who starts in oxygen debt.
The Finish: 1.3km at 9.6% 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 27 for the climb. Once you reach the last 300m the gradient eases up and some have been known to deploy the big ring. 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.
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.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is the prime pick. He’s won it two years on the trot, returns in sizzling form and has a good team to protect him including past winner Dani Moreno and Carlos Betancur who has stood on the podium here too. A certainty? It’s easy to be blocked by others on the climb and maybe he simply has an off day? For all his experience he’s about to turn 36 and will be losing the zip in his legs. Today’s L’Equipe reports he was spotted tucking into a pizza and large beer after flying into Belgium, maybe this makes the difference? Probably not.
Dan Martin has finished 6th, 4th and 2nd here and his progress suggests a win is inevitable but when, this year or in the coming years. He’s excellent on steep finishes and has a good finishing kick. He’s won already this season in Catalonia but looked less sparkling in the Basque Country, a deliberate ploy or a dip in form? Because of this uncertainty he loses a chainring in the table below. Etixx-Quickstep have Julian Alaphilippe whose form is in the ascendant after recovering from illness. The punchy Frenchman was second last year and if there’s a school of thought that says it takes years to learn this finish he’s more direct and says it’s just down to force on the final climb. Petr Vakoč is a third card to play and at first glance 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.
Sergio Henao is not riding after the team park him pending requests from the UCI’s anti-doping body the CADF.
Team Sky’s best bet, he was aggressive in the Tour of the Basque Country and has finished on the podium here before. Yet we said the same a year ago and he went on to finish seventh proving how difficult it is to master this finish. Sky seem to be all on for him with Wout Poels likely to be working to place Henao.
Joaquim Rodriguez got the experience thanks to a win in 2012 and two second place finishes but the signs of ageing are beginning to show and there’s nothing a bottle of hair dye or a pot of moisturizer can solve here. He’s had his slowest start to the season since he turned pro in 2002 waiting until early April to finally crack the top-10 so his chances of a win are so highly rated.
Philippe Gilbert paid the price for his fractured finger in the Amstel as he could not brake as hard meaning he lost metres on every corner and it all added up, if anything it was impressive to see how long he survived. He’ll have the same problem today but the shorter course could help. He crashed out last year, a reminder that this race is very nervous, so even on a straight section of road he’ll be stressed. Loic Vliegen rode an impressive Amstel Gold Race so watch him again.
Michael Albasini isn’t a star pick but has experience and a handy sprint. He was on the podium last year and has been looking sharp in recent races, albeit as a helper for others. He deserves to be Orica-Greendge’s protected rider, or at least one. There’s no Simon Gerrans but Michael Matthews rides. Surely the climb is too much for him? Adam Yates however has a shot at the podium.
What about Enrico Gasparotto? He’s good on short climbs and punchy uphill finishes but after his win in the Amstel surely nobody will give him a chance to get away this time. However on the Mur few riders attack and get chased down, it’s everyone for themselves.
Wilco Kelderman broke away on the steep climb above Amurrio in the Tour of the Basque Country and only Mikel Landa could or would follow. While the Basque took the stage this was an impressive result for Kelderman, albeit on a longer climb and he might lack the finishing kick today.
Lotto-Soudal have a very good squad with 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 Tony Gallopin can try the sprint. But how do they win? Some will have to attack but no breakaway has worked in this race since 2003.
Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi are Lampre-Merida’s leaders and Ulissi is probably the better bet for the finish as he’s a sharper finisher with Rui Costa a bit more of a diesel who is suited to Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Ulissi has been quiet this year but popped up with seventh in the Amstel.
Finally some other names hoping to crack the top-10. Cannondale’s T-J Slagter is made for a finish like this while Simon Clarke is an outsider for the podium and Michael Woods has the physiology for finale but surely lacks the experience. Warren Barguil continues his return to form; Cofidis Arnold Jeannesson is thriving again at Cofidis and Daniel Navarro is climbing well; FDJ’s Arthur Vichot needs a result and Tinkoff will probably ride for Roman Kreuziger while Michael Valgren shone last Sunday today’s finish surely doesn’t suit.
|Dan Martin, Petr Vakoč, Enrico Gasparotto
|Diego Ulissi, Joaquim Rodriguez, Philippe Gilbert, Wilco Kelderman
|Yates, Wellens, Albasini, Barguil, Slagter, Woods, Rui Costa, Albasini
Weather: a typical Ardennes spring day, 14°C and sunny with a 20km/h breeze from the north-east. A lot of the course is in woodland but if the wind does get up there are a few exposed sections to exploit.
TV: live coverage starts at 2.30pm 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, cyclinghub.tv and steephill.tv.
194km and an uphill sprint? The last winner from a breakaway was Igor Astarloa in 2003 and since then the Mur has hosted an uphill sprint every time. ASO keep tweaking the course but can’t stop the race being locked down, perhaps the UCI is needed instead with a rule change for smaller teams although the big squads would reject this. As Jelle Vanendert told newspaper La Voix du Nord the race can be boring to watch for TV viewers but that’s because it’s a very difficult race with teams setting a high pace to control matters. Maybe a breakaway sticks today? Probably not so if you do watch look for the small clues like who is out of position, who looks at ease and so on.
Women’s Race: Huy is not the most scenic place but it’s worth visiting for the race because the Mur allows you to see the men’s race several times but also the women’s race too. Marianne Vos is back but we’ll how much the grass has grown under her cleated feet with a range of rivals now able to win atop. You can see a dedicated preview in listicle format over at cyclingtips.
Flèche: it’s French for arrow, a poetic way to imagine the race crossing the Walloon landscape.