Ten days ago at the Amstel Gold Race, thrashing the legs of everyone on the last climb didn’t work for Annemiek van Vleuten. Fast forward to La Flèche Wallonne Féminine, and on the final ascent of the Mur de Huy it was heartbreak once more.
You would think Van Vlueten would have learned something from Amstel Gold, but seemingly not. Yet again, she was outsmarted by Marta Cavalli. Though this time, it was the misjudgement on how to pace herself on the 19% slopes that was striking.
The young Italian of FDJ kept a little back on the steepest section and rode back to the Movistar leader with 250 metres to go. Then it was a matter of waiting until the line came into sight before sprinting past for her second Classic victory.
Despite SD Worx being in control of the race for most of the day - placing riders in the mid-race break and having Ashleigh Moolman Pasio go on the attack on the penultimate climb of the Cote de Cherave - it couldn’t prevent the inevitable showdown on the Mur.
The Mur is slightly too steep for Demi Vollering when up against the likes of Van Vleuten. It was interesting that FDJ and Movistar were quite happy to assume their responsibilities for their designated leaders on the final lap with massive pulls from Brodie Chapman and then the Spanish squad driving into the bottom of the last ascent.
Just as in the men’s edition, was the race slightly less spectacular because it simply came down to what everyone had left for the final kilometre? Probably, but I suspect that Jumbo-Visma, without Marianne Vos and starting with only three riders, changed the dynamic from the usual, more open, style of racing.
Clearly SD Worx and Canyon-SRAM didn’t want to wait until the last five minutes but up against equal talents of Movistar and FDJ that aggression wasn’t successful. However Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday suits them much better.
La Flèche Wallonne men’s race
I wonder if Alejandro Valverde had won his sixth victory in this midweek Ardennes classic, would he have considered continuing another year?
Joking aside, it’s quite remarkable that if it wasn’t for Dylan Teuns, Valverde might have been looking again at his decision to finally retire this season, and would be fair in thinking that it could well be too soon.
In this edition of Flèche Wallonne, what was noticeable wasn’t so much who was in form, but who wasn’t quite there yet. But before writing anyone off, you have to look at where they’ve been in the last week or so and what they have ahead of them. Jonas Vingegaard was pretty poor but maybe he’s saving himself for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Julian Alaphilippe didn’t have the sparkle of previous years and Tadej Pogačar found the Mur de Huy one climb too far.
Only Quickstep will be panicking, though. Their Classics campaign is coming to a close and it’s been dire. Over at Ineos, the climbers couldn’t quite match the one-day specialists. It was Dani Martinez who once again was their best finisher in fifth, which isn’t exactly shabby.
As a unit, the Ineos B-team looked strong, obviously riding the good vibes wave after Paris Roubaix. So too are fellow Classic winners Bahrain Victorious. They paid attention all day, especially in the crosswinds that struck on the open plain that followed each time they passed through the finish line.
Ultimately Teuns proved the strongest, riding the Mur de Huy in perfect style - accelerating once to make the first selection. Then when Valverde thought his dreams were coming true, the Belgian went up another gear and won convincingly.
Looking to Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Supposedly, we can look forward to a dry and sunny day on Sunday, which will be a relief for many - you don’t want bad weather when you visit the Ardennes in Spring.
The crucial climb has been La Roche-aux-Faucons in previous years and it remains so.
However, it’s quite likely the men’s race will kick off as soon as they hit the climbs of Wanne and Stockeu, with 80km remaining. I can see Remco Evenepoel trying to sneak in an escape this far out, as Quickstep can’t put all their Easter eggs in the Alaphilippe basket, only to lose again. They won’t be alone in thinking they can’t wait for the final. Ineos will have Marinez in the closing stages so they have the option of following the other big stars or letting Rodriguez go in the moves.
Everyone will be watching Wout van Aert and he can’t be discounted, but this terrain suits Pogacar, Vlasov and Mike Woods more. That said, this has the feel of the favourites cancelling each other out, leaving slightly more of an outsider drifting off to take the win. Landa, Bardet, Benoot and less leftfield Tom Pidcock and Marc Hirschi will all be worth keeping an eye on.
In the women’s race, Demi Vollering and Marta Cavalli start as the big favourites but they’ll have to survive repeated onslaughts from Annemiek van Vleuten. However, SD Worx have the strongest team and so tactics are likely to come down to what Anna van der Breggen decides from the car.
Trek can rely on Elisa Longo Borghini to make the front group which ought to include Kasia Niewiadoma, Elise Chabbey, Amanda Spratt and Liane Lippert too. Flying slightly under the radar, we have Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Mavi Garcia. But we must not forget that the Classics campaign is coming to a close and this is Van Vleuten’s last chance.
She’ll hurt everyone else trying for the win.
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