It’s now 30 years since the finish of Flèche Wallonne was shifted to the summit of the Mur de Huy and ever since, the opening 200 kilometres of racing have invariably been relegated to a sort of prolonged preamble to the decisive action in the final 1,300 metres.
There have been exceptions to the rule, of course, such Gewiss’ absurd three-man attack with 70km to go in 1994 or Michele Bartoli’s snowbound victory of 1999, but the last deviation from the script came all the way back in 2003, when breakaways Igor Astarloa and Aitor Osa reached the foot of the Mur alone in front.
In the decade since, the pattern has begun to border on the monotonous: after the last escapees are reeled in during the final 10 kilometres, a large group reaches the foot of the final haul up the Mur de Huy together and the spoils fall to the man who generates the most power up the climb’s 17% slopes. That harsh reality has seen triumphs in recent times from such dubious luminaries as Astarloa, Davide Rebellin, Alejandro Valverde and Danilo Di Luca, all subsequently suspended for doping.
That said, there is room for a degree of nuance even on such a high-octane finish. The Mur de Huy has an average gradient of nine percent, but its steepest section comes with 500 metres to go, when the road pitches up to 17%. Typically, this is where the winner rips clear of the rest, but he must dose his effort carefully as the road only levels out by a percentage point or two over the following 400 metres before the brief and rather false flat at the crest of the climb.
As ever, the final ascent up the Mur de Huy will be the third time up the climb – it’s also tackled after 108.5km and 173.5km – but as was the case on the circuits over the Kwaremont and Paterberg at the Tour of Flanders two weeks ago, the main contenders will be loathe to show their hands on the earlier ascents.
Indeed, barring an unexpected ad lib like Roman Kreuziger’s at Amstel Gold Race, the first eleven of Flèche Wallonne’s 12 climbs are likely to see the peloton whittled down to size but it will be a surprise if the favourites are on anything other than a watching brief at this point. The pace will begin to pick up after the penultimate time over the Mur and positioning will be crucial on the climbs of the Côte d’Amay and the Côte de Villers-le-Bouillet inside the final 15 kilometres, before the grand finale on the Mur.
Gilbert leads the line
The finish of Flèche Wallonne was moved to the summit of the Mur, so legend has it, to aid local favourite and noted non-sprinter Claude Criquielion’s chances of victory. He duly obliged by winning the race in 1985 and again in 1989, and Walloon fans will be hoping Philippe Gilbert (BMC) can take his second victory on Wednesday.
Gilbert was on another planet when he completed a hat-trick of Ardennes Classics wins in 2011, but he has struggled to hit such heights since, with the obvious exception of his day of grace at the world championships in Valkenburg last year. After a bringing a premature halt to his cobbled classics campaign, Gilbert showed signs of life by finishing second at Brabantse Pijl last week and he was the strongest of the chase group on the Cauberg at Amstel Gold Race at the weekend.
Last year’s winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) would ordinarily be heavily favoured, particularly given what he achieved on sharp gradients at Tirreno-Adriatico, but his participation remains uncertain after he was among the fallers at Amstel Gold Race.
Instead, the Spanish challenge should be led by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who took a canny second place at Amstel Gold Race and is chasing a first classic win since he returned from suspension for his links to blood doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) will also be on hand, although his recent form suggests he might struggle to better his third place of three years ago.
Contador’s teammate Kreuziger surely lacks the kind of punch needed to win Flèche Wallonne in the conventional sense and his card will surely be marked after his clever win at Amstel Gold Race on Sunday. Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) has all the attributes to shine on the Mur de Huy but was outgunned by bigger motors last year. In spite of a crash at Amstel Gold Race, the Irishman is upbeat about his chances this time and his confidence is high after winning the Volta a Catalunya last month.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and the Colombian quartet of Sergio Henao, Rigoberto Uran (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Carlos Alberto Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) should also be in the mix, while Peter Sagan’s Flèche Wallonne debut will be a source of much intrigue. The Slovak leads a young Cannondale squad alongside Moreno Moser and is eager to end his spring on a high after a disappointing Amstel Gold Race.
All eyes will be on Gilbert, however, as he looks to break the curse of the rainbow jersey and take his first win as world champion. At least the portents are on his side: the last two men to win atop the Mur de Huy in the rainbow bands were Gilbert’s BMC teammate Cadel Evans (2010) and his predecessor as Walloon favourite, Claude Criquielion, in 1985.