The 2015 men's edition of Flèche Wallonne is set to be both a showdown between Tour de France specialists and Ardennes Classics stars, and also a homage to double Flèche Wallonne winner Claudy Criquielion, who died recently aged just 58.
Like the other two Ardennes Classics, Flèche Wallonne is defined by its climbs and in particular - given the Belgian Classic is the only WorldTour race ending with a summit finish - its last. This Wednesday eleven climbs in total will pepper the 205.5 kilometre route of the 79th edition of the mid-week Classic, culminating with a triple ascent of the ultra-steep Mur de Huy.
Set, as ever, to be lined with thousands of cheering fans, the ascent of the Mur is one of the most dramatic and hallowed in the cycling calendar, with the focal point of the 1.3 kilometre climb the well-known 'S' bend mid-way up. This particular chicane, by far the hardest of the Mur, sees the road's gradient ramp up to a lung-bursting 24 per cent - and it is no coincidence that it is this point where numerous race-winning attacks have been launched in the past.
Whether that will continue to be the case in 2015 is not so certain, though. The introduction of the new climb of la Cote de Cherave just before the Mur de Huy will hopefully end what has been a decade-long succession of overly predictable finales of a mass uphill sprint for the line.
What will hopefully not have any effect on the 2015 Flèche Wallonne is Wednesday’s general strike for a large percentage of Belgium's government and transport workers. The local authorities have promised that the Classic itself will not be affected by the strike, with the public services assisting in the running of the course as normal, but demonstrations are expected to line some parts of the route.
As for the race itself, the competition this year looks set to be exceptionally fierce, given the 2015 Flèche Wallonne will be graced by the presence of three of the four top contenders for the 2015 Tour de France: Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Chris Froome (Sky). All of them, to a greater or lesser extent, have been drawn to Flèche Wallonne by the new race route, which, as large yellow posters across the finish town of Huy are already proudly announcing, is a carbon copy of the stage finale which awaits all three on stage two of the Tour de France.
The outstanding favourite for Flèche Wallonne, though, will be former double winner Alejandro Valverde. The defending champion and Movistar veteran is in strong form, as proved by his second place in Amstel Gold Race last Sunday, and a victory on Wednesday would make the Spaniard one of just five riders to have won Flèche Wallonne three times.
When the Movistar rider lines up at the new start town of Waremme on Wednesday morning he will see he has no shortage of Classics rivals, starting with the other two riders on the podium of Amstel Gold Race, winner Michael Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick Step) and third placed Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge). The local favourite, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) will be seeking sporting revenge, too, following his unexpected defeat on the Cauberg last Sunday, whilst Katusha's duo of Spanish contenders, Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez, are, like Gilbert, former Flèche Wallonne winners and in good shape as well.
Others determined to challenge Valverde will be Cannondale-Garmin's Dan Martin, whose rising succession of top places in Flèche Wallone - sixth, fourth and second - suggests, at least mathematically, that the Irishman could well claim the victory this year. Sky's Sergio Henao is another former runner-up, whilst other gifted climbers like Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal) - both top ten finishers last year - Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Yates and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) are all likely to be in contention.
La Flèche Wallonne will also pay homage to one cycling star, though, who will inevitably and regrettably be missing on Wednesday’s ascent of the Mur: Belgium's Claude Criquielion, twice a winner of the Classic, a former World Champion, and who died recently aged just 58.