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FLECHE WALLONNE

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22.04.2015 @ 10:44 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After the opening battle on the narrow, winding roads of the Amstel Gold Race which suited a wide range of riders, cycling enthusiasts turn their attention to an affair which is for the real specialists. On Wednesday, the Ardennes classics continue with the Fleche Wallonne which is the next step in the gradual transition towards longer and harder climbs and in which only a select few riders are able to take home the win on the tortuous finishing climb: the extremely steep Mur de Huy.

 

Fleche Wallonne may not be the most prestigious of the classics and the Wallonian race is not even listed as one of cycling's 5 monuments. However, no other race - maybe with the notable exception of Paris-Roubaix - has a finish as iconic as the one found in the least famous of the Ardennes classics and it's the end of the race that puts the race up there with the really big ones. Fleche Wallonne is known only for one thing: the steep slopes of the Mur de Huy.

 

First held in 1936, the race has always been a tough one which took in a number of hard climbs in the Ardennes but without the deep history of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege it would always be no more than a smaller version of the other Belgian classic in the region. That all changed in 1983 when the race had its first finish on the 1.3km climb with an average gradient of 9.3%, giving the race its own unique characteristics and raising its profile on the international calendar.

 

Since then the hill has been the landmark of the event and marked it out as a unique race on the classics calendar. It is the honour of conquering the steep slopes that makes the race highly esteemed among the greatest riders.

 

Nonetheless, the race is still regarded as the least prestigious of the Ardennes classics. With its position in the week between the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, some riders still regard it mostly as a possibility to keep the legs going between their major targets and with the famous race in Liege taking place just a few days later, some riders are reluctant to dig too deep so close to the most esteemed of the Ardennes classics. As the race is also one for the real specialists with a much narrower list of contenders, many riders even choose to skip the race to stay fresh for the big one on Sunday. On the other hand, the unique nature of the race and its short distance opens the door for riders who may come up short in both Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and for those, it is almost the highlight of the week.

 

At one point, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege were held on successive days in the so-called Weekend Ardennais but nowadays Fleche Wallonne is a mid-week race. Like all other midweek races, it is also shorter than both the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and at 199km, the race is not made tough by its distance. It lost out in the battle for a spot on the UCI World Cup calendar when the season-long series was created in 1989 and for many years it was clearly at the bottom of the Ardennes hierarchy, with the two longer weekend races both carrying important points for the season-long series of one-day races. With the introduction of the ProTour in 2005, however, it once again got the same official status as the Amstel Gold Race and in recent years it seems to have regained some of its esteem compared to the Dutch race, making it more or less as coveted as the first race in the Ardennes series.

 

With its strong ties to Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it is no wonder that the race has been won by most of the sport's greats and it gained international attention almost from its very start. Already in 1950, Fausto Coppi won the race and even though the home nation went on to dominate it for several years, it has been a really multinational affair since 1976, with only 6 editions being won by Belgians since that edition. Four riders have won the race thrice: Marcel Kint (in the very early days), Eddy Merckx (of course), Moreno Argentin and - among the current professionals - Davide Rebellin who won't be back in the race this year as his CCC Polsat team hasn't been invited.

 

While Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Amstel Gold Race have a wider range of contenders, the very unique finish makes Fleche Wallonne a race for specialists. Only a select few punchy riders have the capabilities to win on such steep slopes and this makes it the most predictable of the three classics. While attrition, tactics and attacking play an important role in the two other Ardennes races, Fleche Wallonne is usually a rather blocked affair where it all comes down to the legs on the Mur de Huy. Nonetheless, it is a real spectacle to see the riders battling the climb and it is this kind of exclusivity that gives it a special significance for some of the peloton's most renowned riders.

 

The race marks the next phase in the gradual changing of the classics guards which was initiated on Sunday in the Amstel Gold Race. While the nature of the Dutch race made it suitable to some of the strong men from the cobbled classics and many teams even include a few of the heroes from the Flemish races to help a bit in the positioning battle, the longer climbs in Fleche Wallonne make it more of a climber's race. Hence, only a very select few of the strong men from the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix will be back in Wednesday's race and when we get to Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege the amount of climbing will complete the transformation of the peloton. At that point, most of the world's best climbers and stage race riders will be gathered on the start line while the cobbles specialists are all enjoying a well-deserved rest, setting the scene for the next phase of the cycling calendar, the grand tours.

 

Last year’s race was one of the less predictable ones as perennial favourite Joaquim Rodriguez has crashed in the Amstel Gold Race, Philippe Gilbert who usually have a hard time on the very steep Mur, showing excellent condition in the Amstel Gold Race, Alejandro Valverde enjoying the best season of his career and defending champion Daniel Moreno eager to make it two in a row. Rodriguez went down in another crash, Moreno was far from his best level and Gilbert faded as the road got steeper and so it was Valverde who timed his acceleration on the Mur to perfection to win the race for a second time. Movistar, BMC and Katusha kept the many attacks firmly under control and it all came down to the usual battle on the steep slopes. Valverde stayed in the top 3 all the way up the climb while Michal Kwiatkowski made a big surge that saw him lead for most of the time. Daniel Martin powered past the fading Pole but had no response when Valverde came around him to take a dominant win. This year Valverde will try to join the list of three-time winners while Martin and Kwiatkowski will both be hoping to do better than they did 12 months ago, the latter arriving at the race on the back of a memorable win in the Amstel Gold Race

 

The course

The Mur de Huy is not only the final challenge in the Fleche Wallonne, it is also the race's main point of reference throughout the day. As it is the case for the Cauberg in the Amstel Gold Race, the climb has to be tackled multiple times before it plays a crucial role in the final of the race.

 

In the past, the race has had a lot of different formats but since the introduction of the Mur de Huy as the race's landmark climb, the race has followed a very similar pattern. The starting city has varied a bit from year to year but the race is made up in the same way. The first part of the race consists of a long, rolling journey from the point of departure to Huy where the Mur will be climbed for the first time. The race then ends with a lap of two different circuits around the finishing city, a big one and a shorter one that both end at the top of the Mur.

 

The final two circuits change a bit from year to year but are mostly held on the same roads, passing many of the same climbs year after year. In the past, the riders did the short circuit first but to get the final two passages of the Mur closer to each other, the organizers swapped the order in 2011. While this has increased the significance of the penultimate passage of the Mur, it has also led to an easier finale as the final kilometres are no longer as hilly as they used to be.

 

For 2015, the organizers have made the final circuit a bit longer to include an extra climb much closer to the finish and this could significantly change the dynamics of the race. The second passage of the Mur may now come 29km while it was located 23.5km from the finish 12 months ago but now the riders will tackle the new Cote de Cherave just 5.5km from the finish.

 

This year a number of changes have been made. After several years of starting from Charleroi, Binche was the point of departure in 2013 while Bastogne was the staring point in 2014. This year the riders will take off from Waremme and the opening section has been made both longer and harder. The big circuit has been shorted from 64km to 58.5km and the number of climbs has gone down from 6 to 4. The main change, however, is the longer small circuit which now also includes the new Cote de Cherave in addition to the Cote d’Ereffe which also featured in last year’s circuit. The total number of climbs has been reduced from 11 to 10 but the distance has been increased from 199km to 205.5km

 

Of the Ardennes classics, Fleche Wallonne is the most controlled. While attacks play a big role in both the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and a strong break may stay away, Fleche Wallonne is a much simpler affair. The terrain in the finale is easier to control and with several specialists gunning for the win, it is virtually impossible to prevent it all from coming down to a sprint on the Mur.

 

The longer 205.5km race starts in the city of Waremme and heads in a southeasterly direction on mostly flat roads towards the Ardennes. After 22km, the riders will get the chance to test their climbing legs on the new Cote des 36 Tournants (2.9km, 4.8%) before they get back onto the flatter roads.

 

The real climbing starts when the riders have turned around and have reached the hilly terrain south of Huy. It starts gently with the Cote de Bellaire (1km, 6.3%) and the Cote de Bohisseau (2.4km, 5.5%) after 92km and 100km of racing respectively. Moments later the riders hit the finishing city of Huy and they now tackle the Mur de Huy for the first time as they pass the finish line after 118km of racing.

 

This first part is rather easy and mainly serves to accumulate fatigue. The early break rarely plays too much of a role in Fleche Wallonne and so it often takes off rather early. It is allowed to build a gap before the teams of the favourites start to control the situation. The first passage of the Mur de Huy is mostly an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with the climb ahead of the more crucial passages later in the race. The peloton will most likely stay calm on the steep slopes while some of the favourite teams make sure to keep the breakaway in check.

 

The riders now tackle the large circuit which has a length of 58.5km. In addition to the Mur, it contains three climbs but there are more flat roads than there has been in the past. The Cote d'Ereffe (2.1km, 5%, 131km mark) is the first challenge and then the riders tackle the sequence of the Cote de Bellaire (1km, 6.3%, 150km mark) and the Cote de Bohisseau (2.4km, 5.5%, 158.5km mark) again. This year they will again skip the Cote d’Ahin which has often been an important point in the race. At the end, the riders again go up the Mur to start the 29km finishing circuit.

 

In this phase a gradual elimination of riders takes place as the pace picks up in the challenging terrain, often under the impetus of the teams of the favourites. What really characterizes this phase, however, are the many attacks that make for some exciting racing. Even though it rarely pays off and time gaps are kept at a minimum, the racing is certainly not dull as many teams have a keen interest in making the race as hard as possible and trying to avoid the predicted sprint up the Mur.

 

The attacking gets more intense as the riders approach the penultimate passage of the Mur which in itself is the perfect opportunity to anticipate the favourites. With the race being one for the specialists, most riders - even plenty of renowned climbers - do not have any chance to win in a final uphill sprint on the steep slopes. Their only chance is to attack the punchy riders long before the final climb and the passage of the Mur with 29km to go is a good opportunity. Riders with this strategy have been further encouraged by Roman Kreuziger's solo victory at the 2013 Amstel Gold Race and we can expect to see attacks as the riders enter Huy for the penultimate time. On the other hand, the new harder finale means that some riders may be keen to save their attack for a little later in the race.

 

The small circuit contains two climb, the Cote d'Ereffe (2.1km, 5%) which comes 16.5km from the finish. Even though the terrain is never flat, it certainly favours the peloton over the attackers. This year, however, the inclusion of the Cote de Cherave (1.3km, 8.1%) just 5.5km from the finish makes a very interesting twist to the finale. It will provide the attackers with a much better chance to make a late move before they head down the 1.5km descent and speed along flat roads until they hit the bottom of the Mur which starts with just 1.3km remaining. No rider has won from an escape since Mario Aerts in 2002 but this will increase the opportunity that the 2015 edition will buck the trend.

 

As the riders approach the bottom of the Mur, the fight for position is usually intense as positioning is crucial. It is important to enter the ascent in the front end of the peloton if you want to have any chance. This means that it's a fierce and very fast battle going into the climb and by the time they hit the slopes, some riders will already have lost all opportunities due to poor positioning. The climb has an average gradient of 9.6% but includes much steeper sections of around 25%. It starts out gently but as they get closer to the top, the riders will get to face the most difficult part of all the climbs in the Ardennes classics and they steep slopes always crown a deserved winner of the smallest of the Ardennes classics.

 

 

 

 

The weather

After the windy Gent-Wevelgem, the riders have had great weather for most of the classics and since they arrived in Belgium and the Netherlands for the hilly races, it has almost been like summer. The good weather will stay in the area for another few days before rainy conditions are expected for the weekend.

 

Monday and Tuesday will both be very hot days with temperatures around 20 degrees and even though Wednesday will be slightly colder, it will still be a great day for a bike race. It will be beautiful sunshine all day and there will be no rain which is very important on a steep climb like Mur de Huy. The temperature will reach a maximum of a pleasant 15 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a northeasterly direction. This means that the riders will first have a crosswind and then a crosswind as they head towards the hills. Having turned into another crosswind section, they get to the circuits where there will mainly be either a head- or a tailwind. In the finale, there will be a cross-tailwind on the new Cote de Cherave and a cross-headwind on the descent. There will be a headwind on the lower slopes of the Mur before the riders turn into what will mainly be a crosswind for the final 800m.

 

The favourites

Of the Ardennes classics, Fleche Wallonne is by far the most controlled and it has often been very hard to imagine the race not ending in a sprint on the Mur de Huy. The terrain may be difficult but it is not the same kind of constant ups and downs and narrow roads that characterize the Amstel Gold Race and the race is not nearly as hard as Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Furthermore, the shorter distance makes the race easier to handle for the domestiques and so it is much easier to control for the teams of the favourites.

 

Several riders excel in the very special kind of finish that Fleche Wallonne offers and this means that there are a number of teams that have a genuine interest in making sure that things are back together at the bottom of the Mur de Huy when they hit it for the final time. Most of the teams don’t have a chance in a sprint against the best on the steep slopes but when the most powerful teams combine forces, it is very hard to break their stranglehold on the race. All these factors add up to make it almost impossible to avoid an uphill sprint finish for the explosive climbers and history proves that it is very hard to deny the favourites. A break hasn't stayed away since 2002 and it has been the consensus that it will probably require brutal weather conditions for it to happen again. Wednesday will be a perfect day for a bike race and the weather will do nothing to make the race harder to control.

 

The addition of the Cote de Cherave in the finale is a very interesting move by the organizers as it will make things much harder to control. The climb is not very long but its steepness means that it is the perfect launch pad for attacks. As it summits very close to the finish, there won’t be much time to organize a chase and this should set the scene for a more animated finale.

 

In Fleche Wallonne, it usually takes a long time for the early break to get clear and many teams will be keen to put Movistar, BMC and Katusha under pressure by having a rider in the early break. When the early break has gone clear, those three teams are likely to control the race firmly but when we get to the climbs, we can expect the attacking to start.

 

The new climbs probably means that the best non-explosive climbers will save their energy for a late push on the Cherave but the earlier climbs may be used to tire out the strongest teams. That will force BMC, Movistar and Katusha to work hard and they will have to react quickly when the moves are made on the penultimate climb. Strong climbers like Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali may have a hard time on the Mur and they know that they may have to attack from afar. This could set the scene for a pretty powerful breakaway that will keep the chasers on their toes.

 

However, Cote de Cherave is a pretty short climb and it won’t be possible to get much of an advantage here. Furthermore, there will be a headwind on the descent and due to the huge fight for position, the peloton will be riding very fast in the run-in to the Mur. Even a very good climber would need an advantage of around 15-20 seconds at the bottom to hold off the punchiest climbers and it will be very hard for anyone to build that kind of an advantage in a race that will be controlled by three of the strongest teams

 

This means that the race is very likely to again come down to a sprint on the Mur but compared to recent editions, the field will probably be significantly smaller. This will suit the climbers better and will make the importance of positioning less. Nonetheless, it will still be very important to be in a good position by the time the riders hit the bottom of the steep ascent.

 

The other key attribute is patience and experience. Year after year riders are seen putting down the hammer way too early before they fade and are nowhere to be seen in the final top 10. Success in the Fleche Wallonne requires the ability to gauge your effort and save your final acceleration until a point from which you can keep up the pace all the way to the finish line and only very few riders know how to do that perfectly. This limits the number of potential winners dramatically but makes the final sprint up the Mur no less exciting, with the steep slopes guaranteed to crown a deserved winner of the smallest of the Ardennes classics.

 

In the past, Joaquim Rodriguez has been almost unbeatable in this kind of finishes and if it hadn’t been for an unbeatable Philippe Gilbert in 2011, he would probably already have won the race twice. In 2013 and 2014, he was not at 100% after he had crashed in Amstel Gold Race and for the first time since his 2012 victory he won’t have to deal with any health issues when he lines up for the midweek classic.

 

However, Rodriguez was slightly off the pace in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race and he may have a hard time in the battle against the defending champion. Last year Alejandro Valverde was in a class of his own in the sprint on the Mur and this year he would love to become just the fifth rider in the history to have won the race 3 times.

 

Valverde may have failed to win the Amstel Gold Race where he was beaten by a very strong Michal Kwiatkowski in the sprint and at a first glance, he may not seem to be at 100%. He failed join Philippe Gilbert and Michael Matthews when the Belgian made his big attack on the Cauberg. However, that wasn’t due to a lack of strength. Instead, he found himself boxed in at the bottom of the climb and when he finally found a gap, he seemed to be at ease when he bridged the gap to the two leaders. He even considered making an immediate counterattack. He hesitated for a moment but when he finally tried to accelate, his move on the flat roads were shut down by Matthews.

 

After the race, Valverde was in an upbeat mood and claimed that he was feeling better than ever after the first race of the Ardennes week. That must be a cause for concern for his rivals. Last year he was in a class of his own on the Mur as he easily moved from wheel to wheel when riders accelerated and other drifted backwards before he launched a lethal attack that easily distanced everybody else. If he is even stronger, he will be very hard to beat in 2015.

 

It may be slightly surprising that Valverde is looking so strong. In the early part of 2015, he didn’t seem to be firing on the same excellent cylinders that had made the 2014 season his best yet. He failed to win the Tour of Oman and he blew up in Strade Bianche. However, he suffered in the queen stage at the Volta a Catalunya but in that stage he probably paid the price for a crash on the previous day. In fact, he won three stages in the Spanish race and some of his rivals admitted that he had been riding terribly fast when he singlehandedly chased the leaders after his crash in stage 3.

 

This year he skipped the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and this made his condition a bit more uncertain. However, his Amstel performance suggests that he is at 100% of his capabilities and he is one of the bst uphill sprinters in the world. He has managed to beat Rodriguez in this kind of finish in the 2013 Vuelta a Espana and nothing suggests that he won’t be able to do that again. He knows the climb intimately, is great at positioning and knows how to time his acceleration perfectly. He can even count on the support of Nairo Quintana to chase down late attacks. Valverde is in the perfect position to defend his title and is our favourite to come out on top in 2015.

 

His biggest rival is likely to be Joaquim Rodriguez. Like most of the cycling world, we were very surprised to see the Spaniard being off the pace in the Amstel Gold Race. He was in a good position at the bottom of the Cauberg but when the attacks were made, he drifted backwards. Despite not going down, he was involved in a crash in the finale and had to spend some energy to rejoin the peloton. His Katusha team claimed that this had probably taken him out of contention for the finale.

 

However, riders like Valverde and Rui Costa also had to make similar efforts and they were among the best on the final climb. The performance must be a cause for concern in the Katusha camp. On the other hand, Rodriguez was riding at a very high level in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and his good form can’t have disappeared overnight. As soon as he felt that the win was beyond his reach, he may even have held something back to be ready for Fleche Wallonne which suits him much better. With the new finale, it was always going to be a very delicate affair for Rodriguez to win the Amstel Gold Race.

 

Over the last few years, Rodriguez has made these uphill sprints on very steep climbs his own. His palmares are loaded with Vuelta a Espana stage wins that have been achieved in these finales and it is somewhat of a mystery that he has only won this race once. As said, he has been set back by crashes in 2013 and 2014 and in 2011 he found himself up against an invincible Philippe Gilbert.

 

This year he will get his first chance to really test himself on the Mur de Huy since he won the race in 2012 and no one knows how to win these sprints better than the Katusha leader. However, he doesn’t seem to be quite as strong as he was a few years ago. He may have won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which was loaded with climbs that are even steeper than the Mur but it seemed like Sergio Henao was slightly stronger. Furthermore, he hasn’t been able to dominate these sprints since 2012 and he has been beaten on a few occasions by his own teammate Daniel Moreno.

 

Moreno is also a former winner of this race and it is always going to be a delicate affair for Katusha to decide the internal hierarchy. However, Rodriguez seems to be riding much better than Moreno who has been off the pace for most of the spring. On Wednesday, Rodriguez is likely to be the captain and with Moreno and an in-form Giampaolo Caruso at his side, he can rely on his usual train that has delivered him to victory on so many occasions. If Amstel Gold Race was just an off-say and if he has improved since Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Rodriguez may reclaim his position at the top of the uphill sprinting hierarchy in Fleche Wallonne.

 

Rodriguez may have won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but the best climber in that race was Sergio Henao. The Sky rider has had an excellent return to competition after his horrific crash during the warm-up for the TT in last year’s Tour de Suisse and he has surpassed both his own and his team’s expectations. Already in his comeback at Coppi e Bartali, he was riding surprisingly well but few would have expected him to be the strongest rider in what is generally described as the hardest one-week stage race on the WorldTour.

 

Henao is an excellent talent and he is at his best on the very steep climbs. In 2013, he won an uphill sprint on this kind of wall at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and he finished second at Fleche Wallonne. Last year he missed the race due to an internal investigation launched by Team Sky which showed that his unusual blood values were only due to his status as a high-altitude native. Now he is back in the race that suits him the best.

 

Like Rodriguez, Henao was off the pace in the Amstel Gold Race which was a big surprise. However, the Dutch classic doesn’s suit him very well and he has probably paid the price for the constant fight for position which is not his specialty. Furthermore, it may still be too early for him to compete with the best in the very long races as he has done very little racing. The shorter distance in Fleche Wallonne should suit him a lot better.

 

Henao’s biggest disadvantage is his lack of experience. Rodriguez and Valverde both know the Mur intimately and it is very important to time everything perfectly on the steep slopes. Henao is not afraid of attacking and he was often the one to take the initiative in Pais Vasco. That is a wise strategy in certain races but on the Mur de Huy, it could be costly to hit out too early. If the can time things correctly, however, Henao may be on the verge of his first big classics win.

 

Henao is not the only Sky rider who can do well in this race. The big wildcard in this race is Chris Froome who has decided to do the race as the Mur de Huy will feature in this year’s Tour de France. The main purpose for the Brit will be to learn more about the climb and to test it in racing conditions. However, he has a very competitive mindset and is usually going for the win whenever he pins on a number.

 

Froome is not suited to this kind of uphill sprints which is better for the punchy riders but one should not underestimate his skills in these finales. In past Vueltas a Espana, Froome has done really well on steep walls and he actually has a decent uphill sprint. Of course he won’t be able to follow Valverde and Rodriguez when they accelerate but the Mur de Huy is a very tough climb that also favours pure climbing skills. Froome has often demonstrated that he is the best climber in the world and if he is at 100% of his capabilities, he may be able to set a pace that no one can match.

 

Froome’s condition is pretty uncertain as he hasn’t done any racing since the Volta a Catalunya where he was far off the pace due to the illness that took him out of Tirreno-Adriatico. However, he has been training well in Nice and is usually pretty strong at this time of the year when he has won the Tour de Romandie twice in a row. On the other hand, he has never been a great one-day racer and he has never been able to make an impact on Liege-Bastogne-Liege or the World Championships even though he has targeted both events in the past. Froome will probably be content if he gets safely through the race and gets a feeling of the finale but he is one of the select few who have the skills to win this race and this makes him a possible winner of the race.

 

Daniel Martin finished second in this race in 2014 and he will be keen to improve on that result in 2015. His consistency in the classics is impressive and with wins in Il Lombardia and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he has proved his ability to time his condition and be up for the challenge on the day he has targeted. Fleche Wallonne is clearly a race that suits him well and after a solid performance in the Amstel Gold Race, he will be ready.

 

Martin has followed his usual build-up to the classics and it has always paid dividends for the talented Irishman. This year he was even better than last year in the Volta a Catalunya and this provided him with lots of confidence when he arrived in the Ardennes. He was strong in the Amstel Gold Race as he led the chase in the 12-rider group that caught the front sextet after the top of the Cauberg and Fleche Wallonne suits him much better. He is a punchy climber who excels on these steep walls and it is no coincidence that he has finished 6th, 4th and 2nd in the three most recent editions of the race.

 

Martin’s main challenge is the fact that he is not very good at positioning himself and so it may be to his advantage that the harder finale will make the field smaller for the sprint. Furthermore, he is more experienced and will know how to time his acceleration better than last year when he hit out too early. He is clearly in very good condition and with his ability to do everything right in the one-day races, it would be no surprise to see him on the top step of the podium.

 

Michal Kwiatkowski finished third in this race last year and this clearly proves that he can do well on the Mur de Huy. This year he goes into the race with lots of confidence after his great win at Amstel Gold Race and he can approach the race without any kind of pressure. After a slightly disappointing performance in Pais Vasco, he was much better in the Dutch classic and nothing suggests that he is not riding at a higher level than last year. At his young age, the talented Pole still has lots of room for improvement.

 

Kwiatkowski is a punchy climber with a fast sprint but the Mur de Huy is a bit too steep to suit him perfectly. In the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, it was evident that he lacks the punch to go with the best on these climbs and it may be a bit too hard for him to win this race. On the other hand, he has more experience which clearly paid off in the Amstel Gold Race where he avoided going too deep on the Cauberg after last year’s mistake (he followed Samuel Sanchez instead of Gilbert). Last year he only faded in the final few hundred metres and even though it will be hard for him to win the race, the podium is definitely within his reach.

 

Daniel Moreno is a former winner of this race but he has been far from his usual level in the early part of the 2015 season. However, that was also the case in 2013 when he came out of nowhere to win Fleche Wallonne in dominant fashion. On the other hand, he was far behind the best in 2014 when he went into the race as the red-hot favourite and defending champion.

 

Moreno has always been very inconsistent but when he is at 100%, he is one of the very best in these finales. That was evident in the 2013 Vuelta a Espana where he dominated the first win and was stronger than Rodriguez in the steep uphill sprints. Unfortunately, he has been unable to reach that same level since that race and nothing suggests that he will be able to do so for Wednesday’s race where he is likely to ride in support for Rodriguez. However, Moreno is one of the most unpredictable riders and you can never rule the Spaniard out in this kind of race.

 

Philippe Gilbert is another former winner of this race. However, that win was taken in his memorable 2011 season where he could do nothing wrong and seemed to be at ease whenever he pinned on a number. He is still a very capable bike rider and one of the best Ardennes riders and his performance in the Amstel Gold Race underlines that he is in excellent condition.

 

However, Fleche Wallonne doesn’t suit Gilbert very well. In fact, he claimed that he would probably never be able to beat the lighter riders on the Mur de Huy until he surprised himself in 2011. Since then, his best result is a third place in 2012, and in 2013 and 2014 he was far off the pace.

 

Gilbert is not a favourite for this race as so BMC are likely to have a more open and aggressive approach than they had in the Amstel Gold Race where it was all for Gilbert. On the other hand, he was climbing better than usual in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which suggests that he may be able to do better on the Mur de Huy than he has done for the past two years. It will be very hard for him to win the race but on a good day he may again finish on the podium.

 

Astana go into this race with one of the strongest teams and they have numerous cards to play. If it comes down to an uphill sprint, Michele Scarponi is likely to be their man. The Italian had a below-par 2014 season and so flew a bit under the radar when he went into this season but he was incredibly strong in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he was clearly one of the best climbers.

 

Scarponi has never achieved any major results in this race as he has usually been riding the Giro del Trentino. This year he will skip the Giro d’Italia and so he won’t do the traditional warm-up race. This could set him up for a good performance in the classics as he has proved in both Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne that he is a very good one-day rider. In his heydays, he liked this kind of uphill sprints and even though he is no longer at his best level, he is still one of the strongest in this kind of finale.

 

Simon Yates gets his first chance to lead Orica-GreenEDGE in a major classic when he lines up alongside Michael Albasini as one of two captains for the Australian team. This race doesn’t suit Michael Matthews who will be riding in a support role, and Simon Gerrans who always skips the midweek race, and this has opened the door for the British talent.

 

Yates was riding extremely well in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he finished fifth overall and in the hardest mountain stage, a gutsy attack allowed him to finish as the best GC rider. That performance has catapulted him into the leadership role for his race which should suit him pretty well. The Mur de Huy is similar to the Basque walls and if Yates is at the same level as he was in Pais Vasco, he will be among the strongest. The shorter distance should suit him well and his main challenge will be to gauge his effort perfectly as he lacks the experience in this very special finale.

 

His teammate Michael Albasini is another rider who is always very strong in this race. In fact, he finished second behind Rodriguez in 2012 and last year he sprinted to seventh on the steep slopes. This year he was riding better than usual in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and he looked strong in the Amstel Gold Race where he played a support role for Matthews. He has lots of experience on the Mur and is a formidable uphill sprinter, even on steep slopes.

 

Albasini may be slightly hampered by the harder finale which should suit the climbers better than a classics rider like the Swiss. A win is probably beyond his reach but as he seems to be better than usual at this time of the year, another great ride could be in store for the strong Swiss.

 

Vincenzo Nibali has had another very bad start to the season but the Italian seems to have timed his condition for the Ardennes perfectly. He looked impressively strong in the Amstel Gold Race and unlike last year, he seems to be ready to play a leading role in Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

 

Fleche Wallonne doesn’t suit him very well as he is not an explosive climber but everybody knows how strong Nibali is when he is at 100% of his capabilities. We wouldn’t be surprised to see the Italian launch a brave attack on the Cote de Cherave and if anyone is strong enough to keep the peloton at bay on the Mur, it has to be the Tour de France winner.

 

Jelle Vanendert has always been very strong in this race and he narrowly missed the podium in 2012. The Belgian is excellent at timing his condition. He is usually far off the pace during most of the spring but by the time we get to the classics, he is always ready. This year he was riding stronger than usual in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and we have big expectations for him for this week.

 

Unfortunately, he crashed in the Amstel Gold Race and this made him unable to follow the best in the finale. He is expected to start Fleche Wallonne as he didn’t suffer any major injuries but it remains to be seen how much of an impact it has had. If he is back at 100% of his capabilities, the in-form Belgian should be among the best on the Mur.

 

Nibali is not the only card Astana can play in the finale. Jakob Fuglsang seems to have taken another step up and has been riding very strongly in Paris-Nice and the Amstel Gold Race. As a former mountain biker, he can do well on these short, steep climbs and even though he has never achieved a top result in this race, he seems to be in a better position than ever before.

 

Fuglsang will be unable to beat the explosive riders in a direct battle but the Dane is a very aggressive rider who may benefit from the inclusion of the Cote de Cherave. Like Nibali, he is likely to try his hand at this point of the race and if he can get into a strong group, he may the best on the Mur.

 

Like Fuglsang, Rui Costa has timed his condition to perfection and he was clearly one of the strongest in the Amstel Gold Race. That performance came on the back of a great showing in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and provided him with lots of confidence for the final classics.

 

His big goal is Liege-Bastogne-Liege which suits him very well while the Mur de Huy is too steep for a big rider like Costa. However, the former world champion could be one of the riders to go on the attack in the finale and the in-form Portuguese will be hard to catch.

 

Mathias Frank may be able to deliver a surprise in this race. The Swiss IAM leader is constantly getting better and better and in last year’s Tour de Suisse he showed that he can match the best on the climbs. This year he has had a slow start to the season but he has gradually been building his form for the Tour de Romandie which is his first big goal. This race will be his first competitive outing for more than a month and so he may miss a bit of racing rhythm. However, he finished 15th in this race 12 months ago and we wouldn’t be surprised if he can do even better this time.

 

Another rider that could create a surprise is Davide Formolo. The Italian is one of the greatest climbing talents and even an in-form Vincenzo Nibali failed to drop him at last year’s Italian Championships. The expectations for his 2015 season are huge in Italy but unfourtunalye he has been set back by illness which has prevented him from continuing his excellent start to the season in Mallorca.

 

Formolo was off the pace in Pais Vasco but since then he has continued his training for his debut Giro d’Italia. Back at full health, the Italian is likely to make a rapid improvement and he has proved that he can do well in these finales. Of course he lacks the experience but if he is close to his best, nothing is impossible for one of the super talents of the sport.

 

***** Alejandro Valverde

**** Joaquim Rodriguez, Sergio Henao

*** Chris Froome, Daniel Martin, Michal Kwiatkowski, Daniel Moreno, Philippe Gilbert

** Michele Scarponi, Simon Yates, Michael Albasini, Vincenzo Nibali, Jelle Vanendert, Jakob Fuglsang, Rui Costa, Mathias Frank, Giampaolo Caruso, Rafal Majka, Davide Formolo

* Enrico Gasparotto, Roman Kreuziger, Bauke Mollema, Nairo Quintana, Rafael Valls, Rinaldo Nocentini, Julian Alaphilippe, Tim Wellens, Julian Arredondo, Jarlinson Pantano, Fabio Felline, Warren Barguil, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, Nicolas Roche, Wilco Kelderman, Paul Martens, Alexis Vuillermoz, Tejay van Garderen, Ben Hermans, Samuel Sanchez, Rudy Molard, Julien Simon, Romain Hardy, Luis Angel Mate, Arthur Vichot, Sebastien Reichenbach, Esteban Chaves, Simon Clarke, Pierre Rolland, Gianluca Brambilla, Steve Morabito, Pierrick Fedrigo, Eduardo Sepulveda

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