The Ardennes Classics continue on Wednesday with the 85th edition of La Flèche Wallonne, the penultimate chance for Classics stars to get a big result during the spring before focus moves to the stage racing season.
Riders will tackle 193.6 kilometres in the midweek race of the Ardennes triple, with three ascents of the brutally steep Mur de Huy – including the finishing climb – among 12 major hills lying between the peloton and glory in Wallonia.
There are plenty of big names and contenders for the win set to line up in Charleroi on Wednesday morning. Here, we pick out five of the most interesting names to keep an eye on during the five hours of action in the hills of east Belgium.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
The first man on our list is a rider who has never raced La Flèche Wallonne before, having only just turned pro in February. But Pidcock is arguably the most in-form rider on the start list having won Brabantse Pijl a week ago and narrowly missing out on adding Amstel Gold Race to his palmarès at the weekend.
At such an early stage in his career, every race is a new experience for the 21-year-old Briton, but – as he showed during his years at the junior and U23 levels – Pidcock seems to be able to turn his hand at just about anything in the sport.
Last year he won the U23 Giro d'Italia, the year before Paris-Roubaix espoirs, while he also has an eMTB cross-country world title to his name as well as a silver medal at the 2020 'cross Worlds. He'll join Adam Yates, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Richard Carapaz and Michał Kwiatkowski on the start line for Ineos, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him back up front on the Mur de Huy.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
He's won the race twice before, so it would be impossible not to mention him. The 2018 and 2019 champion hasn't had the dream start to his first full season in the rainbow bands, as other riders have taken the limelight at the Italian and cobbled Classics, but after a two-week break from racing following the Tour of Flanders he made a positive comeback at Amstel Gold Race.
The world champion finished sixth in Berg en Terblijt, three seconds behind the lead group, at a race that he admitted beforehand wasn't best suited to his abilities. Given his previous record at the race and his quality on that kind of finish, it would be foolish to rule Alaphilippe out, even if he hasn't looked quite as indomitable as he has in previous years.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
Pogačar's team might contain the reigning champion of the race, Marc Hirschi, but the Swiss youngster hasn't yet reached the heights he hit at the end of last season after delaying his start with reported hip and wisdom tooth problems. He was admittedly off the pace at Amstel Gold Race, finishing 35th.
So, we turn to the Slovenian, who finished ninth on his Flèche Wallonne debut last season. He already has five wins to his name so far in 2021, including overall titles at the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico. His win on the steep slopes of Ermaulde at Itzulia Basque Country might be more instructive, though.
There, he got the best of his major rival Primož Roglič after a to-and-fro battle up the summit finish. While not an analogue to the Mur de Huy, it shows he could certainly once again be a factor in the slow-motion battle for the line on Wednesday. It'll be his first race in 11 days, however, so rustiness could be a factor.
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma)
At this point, it's impossible to talk about Pogačar without mentioning Roglič, who finished 69th at Amstel Gold Race at the weekend. That was the Slovenian's first outing at the Dutch race, while Wednesday will mark his debut at La Flèche Wallonne, too.
With no previous results to point to, gauging Roglič's ability to perform on the Mur de Huy isn't straightforward. We do, however, have plenty of evidence of his powerful finishing ability as well as his quality on steep slopes
He has a defence of his Liège-Bastogne-Liège title coming up on the weekend, too. The races will be his final two race days before July's Tour de France, so he'll want to end his spring campaign with a bang.
Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R Citroën)
The Frenchman finished second at last year's race, part of a stellar end of season run which also saw him take podiums at Brabantse Pijl and Paris-Tours. Like last year's winner Hirschi, Cosnefroy has endured a disrupted start to 2021, having suffered knee pain earlier in the year.
Unlike Hirschi, however, he has a top 10 finish to his name in recent weeks, taking eighth place at Brabantse Pijl as part of the chase group behind the three leaders. He didn't take part in Amstel Gold Race but is clearly on an upwards trajectory heading towards La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The 25-year-old has won Étoile de Bessèges, the Tour du Limousin, and the U23 Worlds road race in the past, but hasn't yet scored one big breakthrough victory. He's getting closer and closer, though – could Wednesday be his time?
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