One of my favourite races of the season runs this Wednesday in the south-east of Belgium from Charleroi to Huy – the 76th edition of the 194km Fleche Wallone. The Fleche is infamous for one reason: The Mûr de Huy. This absolutely crushing final climb is the monument to this one day classic. At 1.3km and averaging 9.8% it doesn’t sound as bad as it actually is, as the Mûr features ramps of up to 19% that inevitably swallow all but the strongest, and more importantly, most clever riders. This is such a cool race, even the Spanish indie band, Portonovo, wrote a killer song named after the classic:
Beginning in Charleroi, the riders roll east toward Huy over what, in comparison to what will come, is a relatively flat warm-up for 70.5km. Then, the riders suffer the first of three ascents of the famed Mûr. Once over the Huy, the riders set out to complete two distinct loops through the hilly countryside around region. The first loop through the countryside of the province of Namur is some 90km taking them over 5 short but steep climbs before returning to tackle the dreaded Mûr once again. The second loop, inside the province of Liege, is a short and punchy 31km with two climbs before the Mûr for the finale.
The Mûr de Huy
What makes the Mûr de Huy such a dreaded finishing climb is it’s unexpected brutality in the finish. Riders know the climb. Riders fear the climb. Every, single, last year there is a favorite who attacks on the Muur too early. Far too early. This is a climb where you really need to hold your attack for the last possible instance. Go too early and you’re dead. Equally true, for every Anton who launches early, there is an Evans who follows the lead and wins with a late burst.
With the steep Huy as the finishing climb, this is a tough nut to crack for all but the very best climbers. Philippe Gilbert has to be the favourite having won easily here last year, but he has struggled with his form thus far and likely won’t be at his very best. Gilbert was 6th in Amstel Gold and with a weak field at Fleche, it may be enough. Joaquim Rodriguez would be another likely winner with two second place finishes in the last two years. If there is a rider who the Huy suits, it’s J-Rod who excels on the short and super steep climbs. However, Rodriguez was a shockingly poor 24th at Amstel, saying he struggled with the cold. Alejandro Valverde is another outside favorite, although maybe at this point coming back from suspension and seeming to plateau, he’s more a podium finisher than he may be a winner. Another rider who performs poorly in the cold conditions, he was 22nd at Amstel, a race where he’s been historically poor. Some “darkhorse” riders who may surprise are Jelle Vanendert, Lars Peter Nordhaug, Igor Anton, Michael Albasini or Rinaldo Nocentini. Other riders who should perform are Frank Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali, Rigoberto Uran, Chris Horner, Bauke Mollema and perhaps Robert Gesink.
This year’s Fleche is missing some heavy hitters and considering this, is presenting quite a weak field compared to year’s past, as more than 10 contenders aren’t there: Cadel Evans (winner in 2010) has a sinus infection. Samuel Sanchez, who has great form is out for Anton, and he may not even race L-B-L! Alberto Contador, likely the best climber in the world, is out serving his suspension. Damiano Cunego has opted out to ride the Giro del Trentino instead. Ivan Basso also opted out of Flecha although his form seems poor right now. Simon Gerrans, who may not be suited for such a steep finish isn’t riding. Peter Sagan, who seems to be able to do anything these days, is shutting it down for a while. John Gadret who can’t do anything but climb isn’t there for Ag2R. Alexandre Vinokourov, who is supposed to be racing for Astana this year, just may have retired after all. Andy Schleck, whose name is on the startlist, won’t be there due to horrible form… well, he will be riding, but he won’t be there. Prove me wrong Andy.