More often than not, La Flèche Wallonne – whether for the women or for the men – comes down to the final kilometre, with a sizable peloton entering the Mur de Huy where the steep slopes whittle down the contenders.
This year's race was one of the most aggressive in the event's history with Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafredo) the last of a series of strong attackers to be reeled in on the steep slopes of the Mur where Anna van der Breggen secured a seventh consecutive title.
“It is hard not to dream a bit, right?" Winder said after a hard-fought race. "But it was a huge effort to get over those climbs, and then the headwind on the big roads was killing me, but you had to keep pushing there or else your chances were already done. I was just going as hard as I could. I turned onto the Mur thinking, ‘just give everything you’ve got’, but they come by you like you are standing still!"
The women's 130km race was on from a far way out as a strong trio – Lucinda Brand (Trek-Segafredo), Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM), and Anna Henderson (Team Jumbo-Visma) had gone ahead with more than 50km to go.
When they were reeled in on the Côte d’Ereffe, 20km from the line, Winder attacked straight away and held out for a long time. Behind her, an acceleration by Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar Team) on the penultimate climb made the selection that would contest the victory after catching Winder on the lower slopes of the Mur de Huy.
“I am happy with my own performance, and in the end, I was going for Elisa [Longo Borghini]," Winder explained Trek-Segafredo's tactic. "The whole race was such a good race for the team. We had people up the front the whole time with Tayler and Lucinda. We wanted to make the other teams chase and we made that happen. For the team it was a perfect effort. We did the best race we could do today, and I think everybody is really happy.”
Van Vleuten explained that her move on the Côte de chemin des Gueuses had been planned in advance with the specific goal of dropping or at least tiring out Women’s WorldTour leader Marianne Vos (Team Jumbo-Visma) and others.
“I do think we made the race with that effort in the finale, following our pre-race plan, which was leaving riders like Marianne Vos behind," Van Vleuten said. "If the race doesn’t go as hard as you need and you don’t do anything, she will stay into the group and go for the win in the finish. We made the group smaller and made more girls work to chase Winder down, so my chances at the Mur increased.”
On the Mur de Huy, Van Vleuten could not follow Anna van der Breggen (Team SD Worx) and Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), but after passing Longo Borghini with 350 metres to go, it looked as if the European champion had secured the third place.
However, Trek-Segafredo's Italian Champion came back in the last metres as the climb flattened out and just beat Van Vleuten to the line.
“On the Mur, you have to race your own pace and find out in which part you have your strength," Longo Borghini explained. “I know I am really good over the crest of the climbs because I can use my power. When I saw that Anna had a faster pace than me, I kept my own and I let the others go, then I sprinted at the last 100 metres and I managed to catch Annemiek at the last 25 meters. I really used her as a reference point to just pass her.”
Van Vleuten was somewhat despondent about missing the podium spot by such a small margin.
“I feel a bit stupid about that finish. At maybe 75, 50 meters from the finish, I looked behind, felt like the gap to Elisa was really big and she wasn’t going to make it up. It feels bad to have lost that third place and I’ll need some time to digest it. I should have just pushed a bit harder. At least it wasn’t for the victory, otherwise, I would probably be crying at this moment, but I still feel bad about it.”
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