The man himself and his team may be preaching caution but the bottom line of this year’s Flèche Wallonne is the same as 2014 and 2015: for the third year running, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will likely be the man to beat on the Mur de Huy this Wednesday.
Valverde and Movistar are playing down their chances slightly because the three-time Flèche Wallonne winner is more strongly focussed on the Giro d’Italia than racing the Ardennes this spring. But Valverde skipped Amstel Gold Race last Sunday in favour of what turned out to be a straightforward triumph in the Castilla y Léon stage race, and if his Classics form is anything like his stage racing form, he could well be heading towards an all-time solo record of four wins in la Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
Who could stop Valverde from blasting to victory on the Mur’s lung-burstingly steep 26 percent slopes, assuming that - as was the case last year - a group of 60 or 70 riders battle it out for victory on cycling’s only World Tour Classic to end on a summit finish?
Two former Flèche Wallonne winners, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) have some question marks over their condition: Gilbert was badly affected by his broken finger injury in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, which Rodriguez abandoned after a bad crash. After signing for Movistar a third Flèche winner, Daniel Moreno, will likely now be working for Valverde - although Moreno could, of course, give Movistar two cards to play on the Mur de Huy. In any case, it shouldn’t be forgotten the ultra-strong Movistar team for Flèche also contains former podium finisher and Castilla y León stage winner Carlos Betancur.
If Valverde and Movistar will be the key reference point on Wednesday’s 196-kilometre trek through the rolling Ardennes countryside and over the steep hills that line the River Meuse, there are plenty of other potential candidates for victory. Second in Flèche in 2013, Sergio Henao (Team Sky) did not shine in Amstel Gold, but the Colombian rode very strongly in Paris-Nice and was a runner-up in the very hilly Vuelta al País Vasco.
Daniel Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) has another impressive track record at Flèche Wallonne and together with last year’s runner-up and team-mate Julian Alaphilippe, the Irishman could well be in the thick of the action on Wednesday. Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge), twice a podium finisher, is another solid bet, and so, too, could be Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing) if his teammate Gilbert fails to make the running.
As for those riders prepared to gamble on a late breakaway, rather than waiting for the seemingly inevitable showdown on the Mur de Huy, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) is the standout candidate following his breakaway on the second last climb, the Côte de Cherave, in 2015 and late move again in Amstel Gold last Sunday. But with teams like Movistar, Sky and Etixx-QuickStep all likely to be keen on setting up the usual last-ditch battle, Wellens’ chances of fending off his pursuers through the streets of Huy are limited.
Although the three assaults on the Mur de Huy remain unchanged, the umpteenth alteration to the start and middle section of the Flèche Wallonne route itself might, just, make a difference to the final outcome. Featuring a fifth different start in as many years, this time in the town of Marche-en-Famenne in southern Belgium, a double ascent of a new mid-race climb, the Côte de Solieres, will perhaps toughen up Flèche’s last segment.
After shedding 2015’s very early Côte des 36 Tournants climb, on the first two laps between the Bohissau and the Mur de Huy itself, the 4.3- kilometre Côte de Solieres, at km 87 and 153, will perhaps ensure the ‘weeding out’ process of the peloton starts earlier than usual or act as a springboard for a break. However, the final, crucial lap and combination of Mur de Huy/Côte d’Ereffe/Côte de Cherave/Mur de Huy climbs in the last 29 kilometres remains unchanged from 2015. And once again, Valverde will be the top favourite.