La Flèche Wallonne returns to its usual mid-week spring slot on Wednesday, with the finish atop the Mur de Huy again expected to produce a big-name showdown, with riders fighting the double-digit gradient and their lactic acid levels on the most demanding and excruciating finale of a WorldTour race.
Last year, Marc Hirschi took a somewhat surprising victory on the Mur de Huy, out-sprinting Benoît Cosnefroy and Michael Woods to become the youngest ever winner at just 22, and only the second rider to win on their debut alongside a certain Eddy Merckx.
This year Hirschi will share UAE Team Emirates leadership with Tadej Pogačar and face major competition from Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Tom Pidcock and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), 2018 and 2019 winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and, in his final showing at the race, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
The race route
The 85th edition of La Flèche Wallonne sees a return to a long-standing tradition, with the start going back to the western Ardennes and the city of Charleroi after a series of different start locations on or around the Meuse river.
The race route is reduced slightly to 193.6 kilometres but still includes 12 categorised côtes and dozens of other short and steep climbs through the Belgian countryside.
The east-to-west route is a return to the past, with a risk of crosswinds between Sambreville and Fosses-la-Ville before reaching the new climb of Côte d'Yvoir after 51 kilometres and a loop to the southern hills.
The Mur de Huy is climbed for the first time after 130 kilometres, as riders begin the two laps of the 32 kilometre finishing circuit that also includes the Cote' d'Ereffe, the Cote du Chemin des Gueuses and of course the Mur.
The Coté du Chemin des Gueuses comes 10 kilometres before the climb up to the finish but it is the speed, positioning and team tactics that make the finale so hard and so important.
It is vital to be near the front as the 1.3 kilometre climb to the finish begins and so there is a race within the race in the final 10 kilometres for the best position as the gradient starts to increase on the main road and then turn right onto the Mur de Huy, which leads to the finish line.
The climb is a psychological and near anaerobic effort that requires strength and nerve. Such is the brutality of that final ascent that the race has been decided from a large group there every year since 2003, when Igor Astarloa and Aitor Osa contested the victory having attacked 11 kilometres out.
The steepest part of the climb, at 19 per cent, comes after the Virage Claudy Criquielion with 350 metres to go.
Some riders surge away here, in a show of enthusiasm and emotion. However, it is nearly impossible to keep going at speed all the way to the line from there. The likes of Valverde and Alaphilippe know it is better to wait a moment and give their all a little later, as the gradient eases and the finish line comes into sight.
In the last 120 metres, the gradient falls below 10 per cent and a few powerful, oxygen fuelled pedal strokes can pull back any attackers and propel the strongest rider to the line. Victory at La Flèche Wallonne is simple to describe but so difficult to execute.
As the spring Classics evolve from the cobbles to the côtes, the start lists, like the parcours and the spring weather, also continue to change.
The Grand Tour contenders and climbers replace the heavier cobbled classics riders after they have ridden Itzulia Basque Country or spent time training at altitude for the upcoming Giro d'Italia or other stage races.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers): Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) ended his spring campaign with victory at the Amstel Gold Race while Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is already thinking about mountain biking, the Tour de France and the Olympics. Only Tom Pidcock remains of the cyclo-cross specialists, as his unique talents allow him to fight on from the Opening Weekend through the Ardennes, all during his debut season at WorldTour level. Pidcock will be joined by Tao Geoghegan Hart, Adam Yates, Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz at Ineos, giving the British team multiple options for the côtes and final surge up the Mur de Huy.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates): Pogačar and Hirschi will be backed by Davide Formolo and Rui Costa and the Tour de France winner is likely to be a real threat, as his young Swiss teammate has still to return to his form of 2020 after his bitter but secretive divorce from Team DSM and some early-season setbacks.
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma): Roglič could punch his way to victory or ride to help Jonas Vingegaard on the Mur de Huy in exchange for total support for his title defence in Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Whichever he opts for could see him move first and so open up the surge to the finish line.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quickstep): The world champion was not at his best on Sunday, with young teammate Mauri Vansevenant stealing the praise after his crash and valiant chase and hard work. The Mur de Huy is likely to expose any further holes in Alaphilippe's condition but he has the experience to cover over them. Cadel Evans was the last world champion to win at the top of the Chemin des Chapelles and Alaphilippe should never be ruled out. Indeed, in four rides he has only ever been beaten by Alejandro Valverde, the king of the Mur, who has five victories between 2006 and 2017.
Outsiders: Others carrying the flag for France include Cosnefroy (AG2R-Citroën) who takes over team leadership from Greg van Avermaet and the injured Bob Jungels.
Of course, there are also plenty of outsiders away from the super teams.
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) is on form after his win atop Arrate at the Itzulia Basque Country and well suited to the Mur de Huy, while Sergio Higuita and Simon Carr (EF Education-Nippo) and Esteban Chaves (Team BikeExchange) have impressed recently.
Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) seems to be coming to form just at the right time for the Ardennes Classics, Bora-Hansgrohe have Lennard Kämna, while Dylan Teuns (Bahrain Victorious) knows how to time an attack and was third in 2017.
All of them could figure somewhere in the top ten, their placing ultimately decided on their positioning as they hit the key sector of the Mur de Huy and then surge to the finish line.
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