SITTARD, Netherlands (VN) — If Amstel was the tone-setting round in the Ardennes week fight, then Wednesday’s La Flèche Wallonne is like round six: fitness and moves are known, but things could still go either way.
Flèche is the second of these three hilly classics, sandwiched between Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Like Amstel, it’s a classic that puts a premium on explosive finishing ability, though the Belgian race is thought of as a little less nervous than its narrow-roaded Dutch predecessor.
The main attraction, as always, will be the final trip up the Mur de Huy, one of cycling’s legendary ramps that, however short, makes up for lack of distance with its desperate location: The top is the finish.
The Mur, and this race is very much about the “wall of Huy,” is as leg-breaking as it is mythic. In total, it’s just 1.2 kilometers long at an average gradient of 9.2 percent. This sounds manageable, but there are several sections at 15 percent, and one of 26 percent. La Flèche Wallonne, or “The Walloone Arrow,” has left its previous start towns of Charleroi and Binche, starting this year in Bastogne and covering 199 kilometers.
Belgians have won this race 38 times (most recently Philippe Gilbert, in 2011) and only one American has ever won (Lance Armstrong, 1996). Katusha’s Daniel Moreno won last year, and may find himself the captain of the squad depending on Joaquim Rodriguez’s status after a crash forced him out of Amstel Gold. “Purito” is slated to start the race he won in 2012, but his crash was a setback.
And now that the formalities are out of the way, it’s time for brass tacks. Who’s going to win? Good question. In the same cloth as Amstel Gold, Flèche is a puncheur’s dream, of sorts, though Gilbert (BMC Racing) drew a line in the sand on Sunday, with his absolutely dominant attack up the Cauberg and solo ride to the Amstel line.
Gilbert’s attack wasn’t surprising in the least — this is how he won races in 2011 and a world championship on the road race up the very same climb in 2012 — but what was unsettling, if you’re another rider, at least, are two things: One, no one could stay with the flying Belgian and two, his BMC team rode a brilliant tactical race. It used big engines to marshal the break, slipped Greg Van Avermaet into a late Thomas Voeckler move, and even used new hire Samuel Sánchez as a decoy attack down low on the Cauberg.
Fresh off two wins in a row now, in Brabantse Pijl and Sunday’s Amstel, Gilbert is an absolute favorite heading into Huy. If he wins again, the Belgian hype machine will roll heavy and hard toward another Ardennes week sweep, which Gilbert pulled off in 2011.
There is a peloton full of others who can upset the Ardennes balance, though. If the aforementioned Rodríguez isn’t game, Moreno, the defending champ, makes a remarkable backup man. Garmin-Sharp’s Daniel Martin, who pulled out of Amstel citing knee pain, expects to be rested and fresh, and will be joined by teammate Ryder Hesjedal, a strong GC man who races well in the Ardennes.
Belgian team Lotto-Belisol has Amstel runner-up Jelle Vanendert in the wings, and Sunday’s third-place finisher Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) is likely sitting around thinking why not him. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was the name on everyone’s lips before Amstel, but his dreams sailed away with Gilbert’s wheel.
Again, that’s the fulcrum of these races: they don’t outright go to pure climbers, and they certainly don’t fall to true sprinters. In short, the Ardennes favor bike racers though the steep finish up the Mur is menacing to any rider carrying extra kilos, that’s for sure. But, as Gilbert shrewdly said after Amstel, “I trained so much to lose some weight. I was lighter than ever to start the season. We know the weight is the rider’s enemy. And I was able to defeat that enemy.” And everyone else, too.
Astana will also be looking to make a show. Star Vincenzo Nibali loves to attack and cause a ruckus, and he’s joined on the roster by Jakob Fuglsang, who showed fine form Sunday in the Voeckler move, and with Van Avermaet after the big group flamed out.
The Wallonne Arrow is important enough to draw out the best, and will continue the build toward Liège. Like any race started by a newspaper to draw attention, it does that very well, and if Gilbert can win, the pitch of the region’s expectation will be deafening come Sunday’s 100th Liège-Bastogne-Liège.