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.
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.
|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.