Sandwiched between the more prestigious Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the humble Fleche Wallonne, the shorter and least glamorous of the Ardennes trio which takes place on Wednesday, April 23.
Despite being 30 years older, the Fleche Wallonne has since been surpassed by the Amstel Gold in terms of prestige, which these days is scheduled for the less fashionable mid-week slot. That said, the Belgian classic is still hotly contested and tends to attract most of the big names who also line up in the other two Ardennes races.
Unlike Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the last two editions of the Amstel Gold, the Fleche Wallonne follows a predictable formula; each of the last 10 races has ended with a sprint up the Mur de Huy.
The Mur de Huy – translated as ‘The Wall of Huy’, the finishing town – functions in much the same way as the Cauberg in Amstel Gold, in that it is the race’s most famous landmark, and the climb on which the winner is decided.
The climb is tackled three times in total: firstly when the peloton reaches Mur for the first time, then some 25 kilometres to the finish, and finally as the finish itself, which is almost guaranteed to play host to a mass, slow-motion sprint.
Its most distinctive feature is its steepness. With an average gradient of 9.3% over 1300 metres and a peak of 26%, no classic includes such a difficult hill-top finish.
As such it tends to suit lighter riders more than it does powerful puncheurs, and even pure climbers can make an impression here. But it takes more than explosive climbing to win; experience and timing are essential, and many riders (like Cadel Evans in 2008 and Alberto Contador in 2010) have made the mistake of committing too early, while others (Evans in 2010 and Joaquim Rodriguez in 2012) have taken several years to perfect the climb before winning on it.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) looked like his former self in winning the Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold last week, however the Belgian will find it difficult to complete a hat-trick of wins at the Fleche Wallonne, a race less suited to him.
The riders who finished in Gilbert’s wake on Sunday will likely be in the mix once more. Jelle Vanendert’s (Lotto-Belisol) return to form means that he will be a contender, and 2006 winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) too is on great form, although hasn’t performed well on the Mur for a while. The fast-improving Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) has a great chance to win his first ever Ardennes classic, although Simon Gerrans (Orica) will skip the race.
Several lighter riders who missed out in Amstel Gold will likely be prominent here. 2012 winner Rodriguez is perfectly suited to this race but struggling to recover from a crash sustained in Limberg, so team-mate and last year’s winner Daniel Moreno could assume leadership duties.
Other riders who specialise in this race but have questionable form include Carlos Betancur (Ag2r), who was third here last year and excelled in uphill sprints in March’s Paris-Nice, and Ireland’s Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), who hasn’t shown the same early season form as last year, when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Instead, teammate Tom-Jelte Slagter could be the one to watch.
Team Sky, meanwhile, are missing last year’s runner up Sergio Henao as his blood values continue to be scrutinised by the team. Instead, Sky only takes a six-man squad which includes British riders Ben Swift, Josh Edmondson and Peter Kennaugh.
La Fleche Wallonne 2014
When Wednesday, April 23
Rank UCI WorldTour
Finish Mur de Huy
La Fleche Wallonne 2014: Climbs
84km, Côte de Bellaire (1.0km at 6.8%)
101km, Côte d’Ahin (2.5km at 6%)
111.5km, Mur de Huy (1.3km at 9.3%)
124.5km, Côte d’Ereffe (2.1km at 5.9%)
143.5km, Côte de Bellaire (1.0km at 6.8%)
151km, Côte de Bohisseau (1.3km at 7.6%)
154km, Côte de Bousalle (1.7km at 4.9%)
165km, Côte d’Ahin (2.5km at 6%)
175.5km, Mur de Huy (1.3km at 9.3%)
188.5km, Côte d’Ereffe (2.1km at 5.9%)
199km, Mur de Huy (1.3km at 9.3%)
La Fleche Wallonne 2014: Teams
BMC Racing Team
Trek Factory Racing
United Health Care
La Fleche Wallonne 2014: TV Guide
La Fleche Wallonne will be show live by digital and satellite channel British Eurosport
Wednesday April 23, 13:00-15:15, Fleche Wallonne LIVE, British Eurosport
Wednesday April 23, 17:30-19:00, Fleche Wallonne highlights, British Eurosport 2
La Fleche Wallonne: Recent winners
2013 Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha
2012 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha
2011 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
2010 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing
2009 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Serramenti-PVC Diquigiovanni
2008 Kim Kirchen (Lux) High Road
2007 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
2006 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne
2005 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas
2004 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
2003 Igor Astarloa (Spa) Saeco
La Fleche Wallonne: Last year’s top 10 (2013)
1. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha in 4-52-33
2. Sergio Henao (Col) Sky at 0-03
3. Carlos Betancur (Col) Ag2r-La Mondiale
4. Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin-Sharp
5. Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-Quick Step all at st.
6. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 0-08
7. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar
8. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
9. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Blanco
10. Rinaldo Nocentini (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale all at st
Andy Schleck also suffering from injuries sustained during Amstel Gold Race on Sunday