Alaphilippe the man to beat in a race he is master of
Look, there’s no denying the spectacle of the Mur de Huy, and we’re as gripped by the tense climactic sprint up it as any cycling fan.
But it’s also true that the iconic climb and its famously steep gradients make Flèche Wallonne the most predictable race on the calendar. Ending a race on the top of such a difficult climb means any attacks prior to it are almost certainly doomed to fail, as the best tactic is virtually always to hold back as much energy as possible to unleash in the final sprint.
The race therefore follows a formulaic pattern, always ending with a big group sprint, and consequently usually produces the same winner — ie, whichever rider has the quickest uphill sprint at that time. Between 2014-2017 that rider was Alejandro Valverde, who won a record-breaking four on the trot, and since 2018 the mantle has passed to Julian Alaphilippe, who remains unbeaten in that time (Marc Hirschi’s victory in 2020 came when the Frenchman skipped the race).
So is Alaphilippe a sure bet once again? His uphill punch is certainly undiminished, and the Mur de Huy is his climb — on the only two occasions he hasn’t won here, he finished a close second instead. His form also seems to be there too, having won a stage and registered two second-place finishes at the Tour of the Basque Country, and he’s been building up all spring for the Ardennes Classics.
But there is one question mark hanging over him now following the incident at last week’s Brabantse Pijl, when he went down in a crash caused by his own team car. Has he recovered, or is he still hurting from it? If there’s any reason to doubt the likelihood of Alaphilippe claiming a fourth career Fleche-Wallonne title, it’s this.
Who will inherit Van der Breggen's crown?
At long, long last, after seven consecutive years of the same winner, Flèche Wallonne will crown a winner that isn’t Anna van der Breggen.
The retirement of the Dutchwoman has left a vacuum for another rider to fill, and there’s a host of candidates vying for victory.
And as Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), who won five of the eight editions before the beginning of Van der Breggen’s run, misses out as she continues to recover from the awfully-timed Covid infection that ruled her out of Paris-Roubaix, Wednesday will witness a first-time winner of Flèche Wallonne.
SD Worx will be loath to miss out in a race that Van der Breggen got them so used to winning, and Demi Vollering appears their best option. Vollering finished third in 2020 while riding for Parkhotel Valkenburg, and played a key part in setting Van der Breggen up for victory last year, and therefore appears to be the team’s best candidate, with the likes of Chantal van den Broeck-Blaak and Ashleigh Moolman as support riders.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) is on a real high having won Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, and if she can recover from the huge effort of that victorious solo ride, then she’ll also be a leading contender to add what would be another new race to her palmarès.
Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ), Juliette Labous (DSM) and Amanda Spratt (BikeExchange-Jayco) were all part of the selection last year and finished fifth, sixth and ninth respectively, while Labous’ team-mate Liane Lippert is in great form having podiumed at both Amstel Gold and Brabatnse Pijl.
And then of course there’s Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), who has been one of the main victims of Van der Breggen’s supremacy, finishing runner-up twice and placing fourth on another three occasions, but never winning the race. Now her great rival has moved on, this might be her chance to at last add Flèche Wallonne to her palmarès.
Pogačar and Pidcock both hoping to overthow Alaphilippe
It’s reached the point where Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is considered a favourite for virtually every race he enters.
Since his stunning victory on the dirt roads of Strade Bianche in March, the 23-year-old mixed it up with the puncheurs and sprinters to place fifth at Milan-San Remo, then would have won on debut on the cobbles at the Tour of Flanders were it not for the compatible strength and wiliness of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
Compared with those races, Flèche Wallonne is one that more obviously suits Pogačar, and so his presence is sure to strike fear into every specialist hoping to win. But however invincible he might look sometimes, it’s worth noting that his best result here so far was an unremarkable ninth last year, and the short punch that’s required up the Mur de Huy isn’t quite his specialty compared with longer uphill efforts.
Unfortunately, his Slovenian compatriot Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) will sit this one out with the knee injury that bothered him during the recent Itzulia Basque Country. Roglič was second last year, and the only rider to put winner Alaphilippe under any kind of real pressure.
One star who will be present is Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) The 22-year-old managed to finish sixth on debut last year despite crashing, has great form having helped team-mates to win Amstel Gold and Brabantse Pijl, and is ideally suited to this kind of finishing effort. Given how Ineos Grenadiers have been going these past few weeks, compared with the rotten run Alaphilippe’s Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl are currently one, this might just be Pidcock’s day.
Formulaic race gives hope for frustrated Ludwig and Niewiadoma
Two of the longest on-going sagas in cycling are the many close but failed attempts of Cecile Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) to win a race.
When Ludwig finally won a first ever WorldTour race at last year’s Vuelta a Burgos, it felt like just what she needed to become a more prolific winner. But it didn’t prove to be a watershed moment, and she’s been winless in the 11 months since, despite a host of high finishes.
Niewiadoma certainly used to win Classics, with both Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Amstel Gold Race on her palmarès, but has since lost the knack of doing so in the last few years. If she doesn’t win by early July, then her winless streak will have gone on for three years — an astonishing statistic for a rider so talented and consistently up there in the biggest races.
Flèche Wallonne might present both riders with their best chance yet of earning that elusive win.
Whereas both often became unstuck by the tactical manoeuvres from the other, stronger teams, Flèche Wallonne can be a much more straightforward race.
Both have good records here, and would have already won here were it not for Van der Breggen, who beat Ludwig into second in 2020 and Niewiadoma into second last year.
And this year they’ll have very handy line-ups to support them on Wednesday, too. Alongside Ludwig will be supported Amstel Gold winner Marta Cavalli and the in-form Brodie Chapman, while Niewiadoma has Soraya Paladin and Tour of Flanders podium finisher Elise Chabbey working for her.
There tends to be more activity prior to the Mur de Huy in the women’s race than in the men’s, so there’s a chance they might miss out to a smart tactical move from the likes of SD Worx or Trek-Segafredo. But in the event of a straightforward, head-to-head sprint up the Mur de Huy, both will fancy their chances.
Ardennes specialists reach their peak
The switching between Amstel Gold and Paris-Roubaix has made this an unusual spring, and Flèche Wallonne won't have its usual position of being the mid-week race between those two races. But the specialists who always peak in time for the Ardennes Classics all nevertheless look set to be in the mix this year.
Of those riders, Benoit Cosnefroy (Ag2r Citroën) is the man on form, only to agonisingly miss out at both Amstel Gold and Brabantse Pijl, in both of which he placed second. He was also second at the 2020 edition, and will need to find a way to beat Alaphilippe if he’s to avoid yet another runner-up spot on Wednesday.
The man who beat Cosnefroy that day, Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates), certainly has the ability, but his form still remains a doubt. While he certainly looked decent at Amstel Gold recently, where he placed ninth, he still isn’t reproducing his 2020 form, and will need to if he has designs on winning —which he may not, considering that Pogačar is also in his team, and will surely be the leader.
Frenchman Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic) is a familiar presences at the Ardennes Classics, and looks sharp following his win at the GP Miguel Indurain. He’s only finished outside the top 10 once in his last five attempts at Flèche Wallonne, yet never higher than fourth — is that his limit here?
Few riders are better suited to the Mur de Huy than Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech), who was third here in 2020 and fourth in 2021, but the Canadian has struggled for form all season.
And don’t write off one final victory for the master of this race, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). The 41-year-old still has it in him to compete with the very best, and finished second at Strade Bianche in what has been his only WorldTour Classics appearance this year, and knows this climb better than anyone else riding.
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