Cycle Sport’s team of experts takes a look at the midweek Flèche Wallonne Classic which features cycling’s most notorious uphill finish, the Mur de Huy


Edward Pickering
Deputy Editor, Cycle Sport

FLÈCHE WALLONNE IS JUST A SPRINT UP THE MUR DE HUY, ISN’T IT? OR IS THERE MORE TO IT THAN THAT?
There should be more to it, but recent years have seen the race reduced to just a sprint up the Mur de Huy. Since there are about three riders capable of winning such a sprint, you’d think that more teams would do more to try and take the race away from them, although it’s obviously more complicated than that.

The course doesn’t favour attackers, however – the shorter distance of Flèche (it’s 201km, compared to 255km for Liège) means that more riders are able to stay the course, resulting in the top riders having domestiques at hand to chase down escapees. The descent from the penultimate climb, the Côte d’Ereffe, is shallow and open – perfect territory for a fast chase, which shuts down escapees, and prevents any more from getting away.

But all that said, I don’t mind too much – the slow-motion sprint up the Mur is an incredible spectacle, and watching the deceleration from 40 kilometres per hour in the drag up through Huy to 10 or 15 kilometres per hour up the steep slope is an object lesson in the laws of physics and just how inconvenient they are for bike riders.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
It’s a nice route, although there must be a better approach to the final climb of the Mur. The second ascent is followed by a draggy, open road, where attackers are highly visible in front, so it would take a lot of nerve to go here – it’s 30 kilometres out. But it’s all about the final climb of the Mur, which is one of cycling’s most entertaining finishes. It’s so steep, I half expect to see stalled riders sliding back down to the bottom again.

WHAT’S YOUR OUTSTANDING FLÈCHE WALLONNE MEMORY?
My favourite Flèche memory is Cadel Evans’ win last year. He’d spent the previous two years getting the climb wrong – going too fast too soon, and falling victim to his own strength. But he finally unlocked the secret to the Mur last year.

The strongest rider doesn’t win Flèche unless he’s the most patient as well. Winning on the Mur means not going all out on the steepest section, no matter what rivals are doing. It’s in the final 100 metres, where the gradient relents, that a rider can make a huge difference, and overtake spent rivals. For two years, Evans was the rider who went hardest and fastest up the steep section. Last year, he waited for that final section, and was able to claw his way past Alberto Contador, who’d fatally misjudged the climb.

DID THE AMSTEL GOLD RACE GIVE YOU ANY CLUES AS TO WHO WILL CHALLENGE ON THE MUR?
It certainly did. It made me all but convinced that Joaquim Rodriguez is going to win. Rodriguez is probably the best rider in the world on a steep uphill sprint (Exhibit A: the Montelupone climb in Tirreno-Adriatico in 2008, And have a look at last year’s race, where he came from fourth to second, and was gaining on Evans at the end:  (6:50 onwards)). He couldn’t match Gilbert on the Cauberg, but the Cauberg suits Gilbert much better. The Mur de Huy is perfect territory for Rodriguez, who has form, the ability, and crucially, a front-row seat in last year’s masterclass by Evans.

WHAT’S YOUR TOP THREE FOR WEDNESDAY’S RACE?
1 Joaquim Rodriguez
2 Alberto Contador (not saying I’m happy about it, just that’s what I think will happen)
3 Robert Gesink

AND WHO WILL WIN THE WOMEN’S RACE?
Marianne Vos. I’d love to see Nicole Cooke back to her best, but I’m not convinced it’s going to be this year.

Lionel Birnie
Writer, Cycle Sport

FLÈCHE WALLONNE IS JUST A SPRINT UP THE MUR DE HUY, ISN’T IT? OR IS THERE MORE TO IT THAN THAT?
There’s more to it than that, but not much. The super-steep climbs get all the attention because they are spectacular, particularly at the end of races, but in truth all we’re treated to is a slow-mo sprint. That’s great, but you can have too much of a good thing.

With Amstel Gold’s move to the Cauberg and the uphill finish at Ans at the end of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we now have three slow-mo sprints in a week. And they are contested by the same dozen or so riders each time. I’d like to see the Mur de Huy used as a finish only on alternate years. And I’d like the finish of Liège to return to the wide Boulevard de la Sauvenière in the city centre. The Mur is too long and steep to give much hope to anyone thinking of attacking before the bottom and hoping to hold on. So it’s all about the timing. Remember Evans getting it wrong in 2008 and 2009 before finally hitting the bullseye last year.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
Without a doubt, it’s a crowd pleaser for the fans on the Mur. The race goes over it three times – plus there’s the women’s race. It’s a real stadium atmosphere, with the crowd growing throughout the morning. There’s the smell of beer, burgers and chips. Oh, and cigarette smoke. You have to ride or walk up the climb to truly appreciate how steep it is. It looks incredibly steep on TV but even the cameras cannot do it justice. The Z-bend midway up is ridiculous. The rest of the course uses the lanes and hills to good effect but it’s really all about the Mur. The second and final passages of the Mur are now closer together than they used to be, which does prolong the finale a bit and encourages a bit more aggression second time up.

WHAT’S YOUR OUTSTANDING FLÈCHE WALLONNE MEMORY?
The first time I covered the race, in 2000, when Chris Boardman attacked after 19 kilometres and Raimondas Rumsas went with him. The bunch let them go and Boardman and Rumsas took a flyer. They averaged 45kph for the first two hours and gained a lead of 12 minutes. With 60 kilometres to go they still had about seven minutes. Boardman was doing some extraordinarily long turns on the front. Behind them there were fireworks with a small group getting away. I think Matt White was in it. Boardman finally lost contact with Rumsas, with about 13 kilometres to go. The Lithuanian was captured a couple of kilometres later. I can’t remember who won, without looking. [It was Francesco Casagrande]. I was young and inexperienced at the time and thought Boardman would be devastated to have tried so hard only to be caught. His pragmatism struck me. He started reeling off scientific stats – the number of calories he’d burned, the watts he’d put out. It was only later in the year I realised it had been a big experiment, part of his preparation for the Athlete’s Hour attempt.

DID THE AMSTEL GOLD RACE GIVE YOU ANY CLUES AS TO WHO WILL CHALLENGE ON THE MUR?
Cadel Evans is injured so it won’t be him. Philippe Gilbert will be up there but he may prefer to save himself for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I’d expect Katusha to be strong – with Joaquim Rodriguez (runner-up last year and at Amstel on Sunday), Serguei Ivanov, Alexandr Kolobnev and Danilo Di Luca (winner in 2005) all capable of a result. Whether Di Luca winning would be a good thing is up for each to decide. Personally I’d rather someone else. Leopard have Frank and Andy Schleck as well as Jakob Fuglsang. I’d expect Robert Gesink to be up there too. Perhaps Ryder Hesjedal if he is over his tummy trouble. Damiano Cunego was quiet at Amstel, perhaps he’s prioritising the two Belgian races. Alberto Contador is riding too. The thought of him winning shows how contorted and conflicted the leadership in professional cycling is.

WHAT’S YOUR TOP THREE FOR WEDNESDAY’S RACE?
1 Andy Schleck
2 Robert Gesink
3 Joaquim Rodriguez

AND WHO WILL WIN THE WOMEN’S RACE?
I would have backed Emma Pooley, the defending champion, to repeat last year’s win. However, she crashed during training in Switzerland and will be out for a few weeks. So, Marianne Vos has to be the big favourite. She won Flèche Wallonne in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and she’s in great form, having won the Ronde van Drenthe at the weekend. If not Vos, look out for Cooke. It’s been a quiet start to the season but she’s won on the Mur three times before (2003, 2005 and 2006).

Ellis Bacon
Writer, Cycle Sport

FLÈCHE WALLONNE IS JUST A SPRINT UP THE MUR DE HUY, ISN’T IT? OR IS THERE MORE TO IT THAN THAT?
Sure, it’s the bit everyone remembers – a bit like the Cauberg at Amstel Gold. But like the Cauberg, there are multiple ascents of the Mur to enjoy – three in all – which certainly helps sort the men from the boys. So you could just turn your TV on for the last two minutes of the race, but it’s a little like only watching the last stage of the Tour de France. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE COURSE?
As suggested, the Mur de Huy does lie at the heart of the race, and is the first and last climb of the day. Those climbs that come in between, the second ascension of the Mur excepted, may not be as steep, but they are longer, and serve to soften the legs up nicely for the final effort. The last time up the Mur to the finish is all about keeping your powder dry until just the right moment: you mustn’t go too early, but you can’t leave it too late, either.

WHAT’S YOUR OUTSTANDING FLÈCHE WALLONNE MEMORY?
Rik Verbrugghe winning in 2001 after he just rode his breakaway companions off his wheel at the bottom of the Mur. There was something really old school about a Belgian winning a Belgian Classic in a leather crash hat. It was 2001, and he was one of the few riders still using one. Were it not for second-placed Ivan Basso getting his mug in the shot, the pictures of Verbrugghe winning could have been from the ’70s or ’80s.

DID THE AMSTEL GOLD RACE GIVE YOU ANY CLUES AS TO WHO WILL CHALLENGE ON THE MUR?
It shows who’s in form right now, which is some help, but the fact that the Mur is that much steeper than the Cauberg means that it’s more suited to the pure climbers who are capable of going the distance of a Classic. Contenders for Flèche are often bubbling under at Amstel, while also looking ahead to Liège the following weekend, too.

WHO’S YOUR TOP THREE FOR WEDNESDAY’S RACE?
A Schleck is surely going to feature somewhere, but let’s give their young Leopard-Trek teamk-mate Fuglsang some credit for what is obviously some superb form at the moment:

1 Jakob Fuglsang
2 Alberto Contador
3 Janez Brajkovic

AND WHO WILL WIN THE WOMEN’S RACE?
Until she broke her collarbone in a training crash, you would have put big money on Emma Pooley defending her title. In her absence, I’m going to come over all patriotic and say Nicole Cooke, who’s won here three times before and is due a return to form.

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