There is no question that Anna van der Breggen - affectionately known as the Queen of the Mur de Huy - wants to win a seventh consecutive title at La Flèche Wallonne, however, she revealed that a recent illness may have set her form back ahead of Wednesday’s race, putting her bid for victory into question.
In a round-table interview on the eve of the event, the double world champion admitted that she won’t know how she would feel until the racing gets underway but that if she is not in a position to win, her SD Worx teammates Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio will strike out for a victory of their own on the Mur de Huy.
"I feel pretty good. I’ve been sick last week for quite some days and, for me, Amstel was a bit early, although I felt good. If you miss out on training and some preparation it's difficult to go deep on a climb like the Cauberg. Amstel was good for me, and it was good to go deep a couple of times, and to then recover, so hopefully it’s enough for [Flèche Wallonne]. Hopefully, I am feeling good and I can do what I normally do," Van der Breggen said.
Van der Breggen competed at Amstel Gold Race Ladies Edition last weekend despite reports of feeling ill ahead of the race in Valkenburg, Netherlands. She had flu-like symptoms but reports confirmed that she did not test positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
At Amstel Gold Race, Van der Breggen was not part of the final and so the team looked to new signings Demi Vollering, Niamh Fisher-Black, and Anna Shackley, all led by the experienced Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio. Vollering finished a close second behind Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma).
Van der Breggen will lead the team at Flèche Wallonne alongside Vollering and Moolman-Pasio, and both teammates have stood on the podium in previous editions. There will also be Fisher-Black, Shackley and Karol-Ann Canuel. Van der Breggen believes that if she does not win the race herself, her teammates are strong enough and experienced enough to win on the Mur de Huy, too.
"Demi and Ashleigh have shown in previous years that they can be on the podium. These two are a bit more experienced and they know they can do it. We also have Anna Shackley and Niahm Fisher-Black, who are still young and don’t have a lot of experience but they are learning a lot, climbing really well, and for them, Flèche Wallonne is a good race to find out how capable they are at this kind of racing. I think we have a team that is more motivated than ever, a lot of climbing talent and potential," Van der Breggen said.
"When we arrive at the bottom of the Mur, I will already know, pretty much, if it will be good or not. I am confident, anyway, because if I don’t feel that well, I have teammates who can also go up the Mur and win it.
"I don’t know how I will be in this picture but we are all ready for this race. We like it a lot and it’s one of the highlights of the year. I will try to do my best, but if it is not my best compared to other years than the team is incredible for this kind of racing."
Van der Breggen has won a record six consecutive La Flèche Wallonne Feminine titles, every edition since 2015. The only riders to come close to her success are Vos, who won the women’s race five times (2007-09, 2011, 2013) and Alejandro Valverde, who won the men’s edition five times (2006, 2014-2017).
She understands what it takes to try and win a seventh title, but stated that it isn’t just about continuing her winning streak. She loves the feeling of winning on a climb as hard as the Mur de Huy, and she said that she will try, once again, even if she isn’t fully recovered from her recent sickness or unsure about how strong she will be during the race.
"I’ve never won this race just to continue the winning streak. It only happened every year until now. I’m still unsure of how I will feel on Wednesday, because if I am the same as I was in Amstel Gold Race, then it won’t be good enough to win on the Mur," Van der Breggen said.
"I need to improve and I will only find out when I'm racing. If I am on my good level again, then of course, I would love to make it a seventh because it’s special to win this race so many times. I love this race and the finale.
"The team is also stronger than ever and it is not only up to me. In previous years, that was the case, but this year we have more riders who really want to win this race. We need to see how it’s going."
Trust how you feel on the Mur de Huy
As someone who has dominated the Mur de Huy on six occasions, Van der Breggen said that there isn’t just one way to win, but the important thing is to listen to your body and to trust how you feel, and that is the key to winning, and losing, Flèche Wallonne.
"There is no clear answer. Everyone is different. You should know what’s best for yourself. You should know how high you can go in your pace, not to blow up, but still have enough to sprint or drop the others. The Mur de Huy asks for self knowledge," Van der Breggen said.
The Mur de Huy is steep 1.3km ascent that starts with a run-in along the Avenue du Condroz before reaching the first right-hand bend at a 10 per cent grade. The climbs steepens to 12 per cent, then 14 per cent, and after a hard left turn it hits its steepest section at 19 per cent with 400 metres to go. The grade ever-so-slightly eases off to 13 per cent, and then 9 per cent in the final 100 metres to the finish line.
Asked if there was one line to take on the climb that was better than the other, Van der Breggen said, ’No, it’s just the way up."
"There are always choices you can make. If you take the inner corner, it’s the most steep, so you can do it if you feel really well and want to attack and gain some places. If you are on the limit, it’s better to take the outside of the corner so that it’s a bit less steep and you can keep a rhythm. The hard part comes after, so if you make a lot of lactate in the corners, you can gain some places but you can lose a lot of places in the final 100 or 200 metres. It’s all about knowing yourself and how you feel when deciding where to attack or if you should wait for a sprint."
Van der Breggen said that winning on the Mur du Huy is as much about strength as it is about confidence.
"I never thought that I was capable of winning on the Mur de Huy, until I did, so it’s always about gaining confidence and knowing that you are capable of winning there. It’s a hard climb for everybody. It helps to know you feel good. Sometimes you feel good at the beginning, sometimes halfway up the climb, it depends each time."
There can only be one winner
Van der Breggen is confident that she knows exactly how to win Flèche Wallonne based on her experience, strength and timing on the Mur de Huy in the last six editions. She would like to teach her new teammates everything she knows about succeeding on one of the sport's most iconic climbs before she retires and becomes a directeur for SD Worx in 2022.
"It’s my last time and I know very well how to do it, and how to feel, I will try to teach that to them," Van der Breggen said.
She specifically pointed to Vollering as a rider who could take the win on Wednesday. Vollering was third last year behind Van der Breggen and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. She is a new signing to the team this year and has been a serious contender at the Spring Classics; second at Amstel Gold Race, second at Brabantse Pijl, fifth at Tour of Flanders, and sixth at Strade Bianche.
The are several other main contenders too, outside of Van der Breggen, Vollering and Moolman-Pasio, including Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), Sarah Gigante (TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank), Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), to name a few.
"I have taught [Demi] to trust in her own body. I have confidence in her capability because I saw it last year on the Mur … she was there and she was fighting for the win," Van der Breggen said. "She is stronger this year, and one plus one is two, so she should be capable of winning this race. It’s a possibility. It’s not clear. You need to be the best. I think she can do it."
Asked if she wanted Vollering to win more than winning herself, Van der Breggen said, "No."
"I also need to be fair to myself. If you look at how I came back from [being sick] last week, it was fast, but you need to be in top shape to win a race like this. I like that there are more girls next to me who can win it, but for myself it would be great to win this race in my last year.
"I also feel like I won it six times already and so I know the feeling. For me, it would also be a special feeling if one of my teammates wins this race. I would love to win this race again and that would give me a great feeling, but on the other hand, it will also feel good to see Ashleigh or Demi win it - but not more than [me] - it would be good if we win this race, and that is hard enough already."
Flèche Wallonne normally follows a pattern whereby there are aggressive attacks along the larger loop but a field, no matter how whittled down, usually arrives to the final circuit to contest the Mur de Huy. Van der Breggen expects a similar outcome on Wednesday, and she understands more than anyone that there can only be one winner on the Mur de Huy.
"If I am capable, I would like to win it. You need to be fair because the best rider wins. When we are there together - myself, Demi and Ashleigh - we all have to try to win the race. It’s never against each other, it’s with each other, but there can only be one who can win the race. You need to be good to win on the Mur de Huy - It never lies."
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