The Ardennes Classics are in full swing now, as the peloton returns to Belgium for Flèche Wallonne. The 199km race is the final indication of form before Liège-Bastogne-Liège, on Sunday.
It is shorter than last year’s edition, with the start moving to Bastogne. The change in start town means the climbs of the Côte de Naninne and de Groynne have been replaced by and extra ascent of the Côte de Bellaire and d’Ahin. Its 11 climbs will ensure that only the top riders make it to the finish in the front group.
The Mur de Huy is enough to strike fear into the heart of any rider. The 1.3 kilometre climbs averages 9.3% and the riders will have to tackle it three times. Previous editions tell us that a break will struggle to succeed here and that the final move will be made inside the final kilometre. However, with the penultimate ascent of the Huy coming closer to the finish than in previous years we could see a much smaller group at the finish.
Four past winners will line-up, ensuring a hotly contested fight for victory. Katusha arrive at the race with the two previous victors in their selection of eight riders. Daniel Moreno won last year’s race, after launching a perfectly timed attack in the last 200 metres. He will, once again, be the team’s leader once again. 2012 winner Joaquim Rodríguez is riding in support of his team-mate, despite crashing out of Amstel Gold on Sunday. The Spaniard admitted that the pain has made climbing tough, but felt obliged to assist his compatriot.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is one of the men looking to end the Russian team’s dominance of the race. He’s won the race once before, in 2011, and is on flying form at the moment. Gilbert has is two for two in his spring campaign, with a win at Brabantse Pijl and a commanding victory at Amstel Gold on Sunday. He’ll be out to continue that and repeat his success of 2011, when he won all three races. The Belgian has Samuel Sánchez at his side. Sánchez finished third in the same year as Gilbert took his victory and is likely to be a key factor in whether Gilbert’s success or failure.
Gilbert won’t be the only rider looking to unseat Katusha. Lotto-Belisol’s Jelle Vanendert won the race for second at the weekend and has gone well at Flèche Wallonne in the past. Lotto have had a tough spring and success for Vanendert would rectify that. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) has been in fine fettle this year and has a strong team behind him. As does Carlos Betancur (AG2R-La Mondiale), who finished third in last year’s race. Betancur has the necessary explosive power on the steep inclines to reach the top step this time.
Dutch team Belkin head to the race with three leaders, with Bauke Mollema likely to be the strongest of their three contenders. Tom-Jelte Slagter could be an outside bet for Garmin-Sharp, after his teammate Dan Martin suffered a knee injury on Sunday. You also can’t count out 2006 winner Alejandro Valverde, who will lead the Movistar team.