Marc Hirschi followed up on his outstanding Tour de France with a huge one-day victory in the 2020 Flèche Wallone.
The 22-year-old Sunweb rider kept himself out of trouble for the 200km day in the saddle and waited until just 50 metres remained of the iconic Mur de Huy climb, launching his sprint and countering Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) to take the victory.
An unpredictable edition of the race could have gone to 21-year-old Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), the WorldTour debutant who making it into the day’s early breakaway and riding away solo with around 20km to race, holding off the peloton despite all odds.
But it wasn’t to be for the Belgian as he crashed at speed in the final, setting up the familiar uphill sprint for the line, won by Hirschi.
How it happened
The 2020 edition of Flèche Wallonne looked to be the most unpredictable in years, with no previous winners on the start list and with a slight change to the final 10km, which opened up the possibility of a departure from the usual uphill sprint.
Taking place over a slightly longer 202km from Herve to the iconic finish on the Mur de Huy, the peloton faced 10 categorised climbs scattered throughout the course with countless unmarked climbs also on the route.
The first uphill stretch came 25km into the stage with the Côte de Trasenster (3.1km at 5.4 per cent), which was followed by an undulating 55km to the next categorised climbs.
After 120km riders entered into the first of three brutal finishing laps, which started with the 2.1km, 5.2 per cent Côte d’Ereffe, which was followed shortly after by the Côte du Chemin des Gueses (1.6km, at 6.3 per cent), which topped out 10km from the top of the Huy.
The Chemin des Gueses replaces the Côte de Cherave in this year’s edition and offers a slightly longer distance (10km compared to 4km) to the finish line from the top of the penultimate climb, in the hopes of sparking some early opportunistic attacks.
After the Chemin, it was straight onto the daunting Mur du Huy (1km at 11.8 per cent) for the first time across the finish, with around 70km to the line remaining.
The peloton would take on the circuit (and all three climbs) three times, finishing atop the Mur du Huy to close out the race.
Attacks began to fly from the peloton in the opening 10km, but only four riders made it clear of the bunch to set up the day’s break.
The group of Vansevenant, Aaron Van Poucke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Mathijs Paasschens (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles) and Marlon Gaillard (Total Direct Energie) extended their advantage out to a maximum of almost seven minutes before the peloton started to up the chase effort, with Ineos Grenadiers, Sunweb and UAE Team Emirates helping to pull at the front of the bunch.
All was quiet until when Ide Schelling (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Alessandro De Marchi (CCC Team) launched a two-up attack 75km from home.
The pair tried to bridge across the five-minute gap to the breakaway but never really got close, as Schelling was dropped by De Marchi 30km from home.
Italian De Marchi pressed on alone solo (where he seems most comfortable) but the peloton was gaining and he was eventually caught 25km out.
On their penultimate ascent of the Mur du Huy, the breakaway began to fall apart as Vansevenant and Paasschens proved themselves strongest and rode away from their companions, with the peloton still two minutes in arrears to the race leaders.
With 20km to race Vansevenent dropped the hammer and powered clear of Paasschens near the top of the Côte d’Ereffe.
This was followed by an attack from Rui Costa from the bunch, who bridged across to Paasschens 15km out but he was swallowed by the bunch shortly after, leaving just Vansevenant as the solo leader, one minute ahead of the peloton.
Just over 10km out Rigoberto Urán fired a solo huge attack and blasted clear of the bunch, pulling Vansevenant back to within 12 seconds in the next 2km.
The 21-year-old Vansevenant, riding his first year at WorldTour level, was fantastic on the final part of the course and still held 45 seconds on the bunch with 10km left to race, with the gap narrowing to around 30 seconds 5km from the finish.
But disaster struck for the young Belgian just 4km from the finish when he ran wide on a high-speed right hand turn and crashed full gas into the bushes at the side of the road.
Luckily uninjured, Vansevenant jumped back on the bike in a flash and managed to get back up to speed with a slight advantage over the bunch.
Vansevenant was caught by Uràn with just over 2km left to race but the peloton had the duo in their sights and were determined to close the race down for the traditional uphill sprint. Just 300 metres from the foot of the climb Uràn and Vansevenant were swallowed as UAE and Ineos set the pace on the front and onto the foot of the climb Michal Kwiatkowski was close at the front along with Tadej Pogačar.
Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) upped the pace as the summit approached with Marc Hirschi on his wheel, but the other favourites were still tied up with 200m to race.
Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) was next to hit the front and launched his all-out effort 100m from the line, but Hirschi showed amazing patience to only kick 50m from the line, passing Woods to take his second career win, after stage 12 of the Tour de France.
Benoit Cosneyfroy from AG2R La Mondiale sprinted to second, while Woods faded to third at the finish.
Flèche Wallonne 2020: Herve to Mur de Huy (202km)
1. Marc Hirschi (Sui) Sunweb, in 4-49-17
2. Benoît Cosnefroy (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
3. Michael Woods (Can) EF Pro Cycling
4. Warren Barguil (Fra) Arkéa-Samsic
5. Dan Martin (Irl) Israel Start-Up Nation
6. Michał Kwiatkowski (Pol) Ineos Grenadiers
7. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 5s
8. Richie Porte (Aus) Trek-Segafredo
9. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates
10. Simon Geschke (Ger) CCC Team, at 10s