When: Wednesday April 20, 2016
Rank: UCI WorldTour
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The second of the three so-called Ardennes Classics, La Flèche Wallonne takes place on Wednesday, sandwiched between last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race and this upcoming Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Unlike those two races, La Flèche Wallonne finishes atop its key climb, the Mur de Huy, and as such is targeted by climbers with fast uphill sprints.
Such is the severity of the Mur, tactics for this classic tend to be very straightforward – save as much energy as possible throughout the race, then go as hard as possible in the finishing sprint. Riders will attack and attempt to gain a big enough gap in breaks, but it’s been years since the race culminated in anything other than a mass, slow-motion sprint to the line.
The organisers have sought to address this lack of variety, by rearranging the route. Not only does this year’s edition have a new start town (Marche-en-Famenne, rather than Waremme), it also has a new climb in the form of the 4.3km Cote de Solieres at around 40km from the finish.
Along with the Cote de Cherave, a 1.3km, 8 per cent averaging ascent that was introduced for the first time last year as a new penultimate climb, there’s more to encourage attackers in the finishing stages of this year’s race.
Nevertheless, the Mur de Huy remains the centrepiece. It’s climbed three times, each time causing more pain to the riders. Not only is the gradient horrifying steep – averaging – it also goes on a bit, with the riders climbing for 1300 metres before reaching its peak.
In the past couple of years, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has proven himself the master of this climb, winning each of the previous two editions. With a strong team around (including 2013 winner Danni Moreno) and very good form (he won the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon last weekend), he’s hot favourite to gain a fourth career victory – a result that would put him ahead of the likes of Eddy Merckx and Moreno Argentin as the all-time winner of most Flèche Wallonne editions.
Among his rivals will be Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep). The young Frenchman was his closest adversary last year when he finished second, and he appears to be rediscovering that form after a strong showing at Amstel Gold. Along with teammate Dan Martin, who has a fine record in this race without yet ever winning it, Etixx-QuickStep should be one of the major protagonists.
Sky also look strong, with Colombian Sergio Henao seeming set to be their leader. His lightweight frame makes him ideal for steep climbs like the Mur de Huy, and second overall at the Tour of the Basque Country earlier this month suggests he’s in the same kind of form that saw him finish second in 2013.
Riders who go well at Amstel Gold tend to put similar performances here too, so look out for winner Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and runner-up Michael Valgren (Tinkoff).
Other contenders include 2012 winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), last year’s third place finisher Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge), and Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r La Mondiale), if he has the legs that helped him win a stage on a similarly steep uphill finish at the Tour last year.
La Fléche Wallonne: Recent winners
2015: Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar
2014: Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar
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
La Fléche Wallonne: Last year’s top ten (2015)
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar, in 5-08-22
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Etixx-QuickStep, st
3. Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-GreenEdge, st
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha, st
5. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha, st
6. Alexis Vuillermoz (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 4 seconds
7. Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky, at 4 seconds
8. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, st
9. Tom-Jelte Slagter (Ned) Cannondale-Garmin, st
10. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 8 seconds