On the heels of Sunday's 'Ardennes Week' opener at the Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne brings the peloton into the Ardennes region proper on Wednesday, with everything kicking off in Binche, Belgium.
The midweek one-day race pits riders against a collection of short but very steep climbs, chief among them the iconic Mur de Huy, whose demanding gradients practically guarantee that only an elite uphill specialist can cross the Flèche Wallonne finish line first. That may be why Movistar's Alejandro Valverde has won the last three straight editions of the race. The Spaniard is hunting his fifth career title this week, but competition will be fierce in Belgium's French-speaking Wallonia region.
The first half of La Flèche Wallonne gets underway calmly enough with nary an official climb to speak of in the initial 130km of the race, which runs 204.5km in full. After setting off from Binche, the peloton makes an easterly trek toward the hills, with the first ascent – the Côte d'Amay – crested at 131.5 kilometres. One the climbing begins, though, it doesn't much let up until the finish line.
The Côte de Villers le-Bouillet is next on the menu before the first passage of the finish line atop the Mur de Huy, officially 1.3km in length with a 9.6% gradient but with a significant stretch in the double digits before a flatter section at the top. Once across the line for the first time at 146.5 kilometres, the riders will make two trips around a finishing circuit that includes the Côte d'Ereffe (2.1km at 5%), the Côte de Cherave (1.3km 8.1%) and the Mur.
La Flèche Wallonne will reach its climax as the peloton completes the second lap on the circuit to crest the Mur for the third and final time.
Alejandro Valverde is the odds-on favourite at the moment, and for good reason, considering his skill set and track record on the lumpy Walloon parcours. He also happens to be in blazing form this spring, having claimed overall titles ahead of stiff competition at the Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al País Vasco. What's more, he has a strong team around him, with former Flèche Wallonne winner Daniel Moreno making a great lieutenant and alternative option for Movistar.
Daniel Martin, twice a podium finisher at Flèche Wallonne, will give Quick-Step a legitimate challenger, even in the absence of Julian Alaphilippe and Philippe Gilbert. Martin is climbing well this year and tends to make this race – which favours his punchy style – a major priority.
Sky will bring a powerful one-two punch in Sergio Henao and Michal Kwiatkowski. Both are in great form. Kwiatkowski may have the more impressive track record in the Ardennes recently, but Henao is probably the purer climbing talent, and he claimed runner-up honors atop the Mur back in 2013. He's more explosive than many realise.
Orica-Scott's Michael Albasini has a knack for strong showings at La Flèche Wallonne, with six career top 10s, and he proved his current fitness with a podium ride at Amstel Sunday. If Valverde can be a major threat at 36, so can Albasini.
AG2R have options with Romain Bardet and Alexis Vuillermoz, as does the UAE Team Emirates with Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa. Cannondale-Drapac have several cards to play with Rigoberto Urán Michael Woods and Tom-Jelte Slagter.
Trek-Segafredo's Bauke Mollema and Jarlinson Pantano, Sunweb's Wilco Kelderman, Warren Barguil and possibly even Michael Matthews, Lotto Soudal's Tim Wellens, Astana's Jakob Fuglsang, Bahrain-Merida's Ion Izagirre and BMC's Samuel Sánchez are others worth watching Wednesday on the Mur.