La Flèche Wallonne celebrates 40 years of the Mur de Huy this year, the hilltop finish that has come to define the race having been a permanent fixture in the endgame of the 'Walloon Arrow' since 1983.
These days, the race doesn't resemble an arrow darting across much of the French-speaking region of Belgium as it used to back then. Instead, the peloton skirts Liège to the east before the local laps in Huy based around the famous wall.
Visits to Charleroi, Verviers, Tournai, and Mons in eastern Wallonia fell by the wayside decades ago, though in the modern race the start location and stops along the way matter little given the 1,300 metres of leg-breaking gradients that end the 202-kilometre race.
While there are hills along the way – the Côte of Tancrémont, Forges, Ereffe and Cherave – the winning effort is almost without exception made on the Chemin des Chapelles. The twisting road overlooking Huy to the south is named for the six small chapels dedicated to Mary's Seven Sorrows that line the way.
There, for three of the past four editions, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl's Julian Alaphilippe has been the first man to the finish at the Notre Dame de la Sarte church atop the climb. He, like Moreno Argentin, Davide Rebellin, and Alejandro Valverde before him, is the current king of the Mur de Huy.
While in the women's race, a new queen will be crowned after the abdication (read: retirement) of Anna van der Breggen, this year Alaphilippe is once again the man to beat as the world champion seeks to move to within one victory of Valverde's all-time record of five.
Something more pressing than the history books, though, is QuickStep's hunger for a big win in the Classics this spring. Fabio Jakobsen's Opening Weekend success at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne aside, the team passed the cobbled Classics with no wins or even podiums on their collective palmarès.
That might have been somewhat rectified at Paris-Roubaix were it not for Yves Lampaert crashing after clipping a cheering spectator. The Belgian was on for a possible podium finish on Sunday but ended up in 10th, a disappointment but still somehow the team's joint-best result on the cobbles since Kuurne.
On Wednesday, all eyes will be on the Frenchman, then. He, as well as his young climbing cadre of Ilan van Wilder, Remco Evenepoel, and Mauri Vansevenant, will lead the way for the Belgian squad, which on paper looks among the strongest at the race.
Another team which can claim that title is Ineos Grenadiers, the standout squad of the Classics the past few weeks. Tom Pidcock, sixth last year, leads alongside Amstel Gold Race winner Michał Kwiatkowski, while Dani Martínez, Geraint Thomas, Omar Fraile, and Carlos Rodríguez also start.
There's plenty of strength in depth there, although the 'numbers game' that they have deployed to spectacular effect at Amstel, Roubaix, and Brabantse Pijl may be harder to put into action in Huy, where watts per kilogram and individual explosiveness are the order of the day.
Also lining up will be UAE Team Emirates superstar Tadej Pogačar, a man who can seem to wield the strength of a team all on his own. The two-time Tour de France champion has won more than anyone this season, even the sprinters, and it would be no shock to see him add Flèche to his palmarès, even if ninth in 2020 is his best result in two starts.
In Marc Hirschi, UAE Team Emirates will enjoy another option for the final, a luxury given he won this race two years ago. He and Alaphilippe will join two other past winners on the start line, too, with Movistar leader Valverde and home favourite, Lotto Soudal's Philippe Gilbert also taking on the race for the final time in their storied careers.
The pair might not be top favourites, but Valverde – who turns 42 next Monday – has shown this year that it's still possible to win in the months leading up to retirement. Astana Qazaqstan leader Vincenzo Nibali is another veteran set to start, heading to Belgium from a decent fourth place at the Giro di Sicilia.
His old teammates at Trek-Segafredo will be looking to Bauke Mollema, five times a top 10 finisher, for a result, though the Dutchman hasn't raced since Paris-Nice and figures to be an outsider for glory.
Along with Alaphilippe, French hopes will rest with AG2R Citroën leader Benoît Cosnefroy and Arkéa-Samsic's Warren Barguil. The pair were second and third at Brabantse Pijl, while Cosnefroy will be aching to experience the top step of a podium after also finishing second at the Circuit de la Sarthe and Amstel Gold Race.
Further competition among the packed field is set to come from Jumbo-Visma (Jonas Vingegaard and Tiesj Benoot), Bahrain Victorious (Dylan Teuns, Wout Poels, and Jack Haig), and Bora-Hansgrohe (Sergio Higuita and Aleksandr Vlasov).
The Russian made our riders to watch list having enjoyed a strong start to his time at the German squad, most recently taking third at Itzulia Basque Country, though it will be his Flèche debut. Teuns is well-suited to the course, too, having finished third back in 2017, while fellow Flandrien Benoot, revitalised at Jumbo, will line up for the second time in his career.
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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