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The Fleche Wallonne is a race for specialists and in the very unique discipline of sprinting up the steepest slopes, the world has a clear number one. Joaquin Rodriguez has not been beaten in such a finish since his defeat to a mighty Phili...

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ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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FLECHE WALLONNE

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JELLE VANENDERT

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JOAQUIM RODRIGUEZ OLIVER

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JOHN GADRET

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NAIRO QUINTANA

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PETER SAGAN

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PHILIPPE GILBERT

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SERGIO LUIS HENAO

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16.04.2013 @ 12:50 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After the open battle on the narrow, winding roads of the Amstel Gold Race, cycling enthusiasts turn their attention to the real specialists. On Wednesday the Ardennes classics continue with the Fleche Wallonne and only a select few riders are able to take home the win on the tortuous finishing climb: the extremely steep Mur de Huy.

 

The 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 the Paris-Roubaix - has a finish as iconic as the one found in the least famous of the Ardennes classics. The Fleche Wallonne is known only for one thing: the steep slopes of the Mur de Huy.

 

First held in 1936, the race was a hard 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%.

 

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 the 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.

 

At one time the Fleche Wallonne and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege were held on successive days in the so-called Weekend Ardennais but nowadays Fleche Wallonne is a mid-week race. Hence, it is no surprise to see the race being shorter than both the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne and at 205km the challenge is not overly difficult with a more important race coming out. It lost out in the battle for a spot on the UCI World Cup calendar when the season-long series was created in 1989 but with the introduction of the ProTour in 2005 it once again got the same official status as the Amstel Gold Race and in recent years it has regained some of its esteem compared to the Dutch race.

 

While the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Amstel Gold Race have a wider range of contenders, the very unique finish makes the 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. 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, the longer climbs in the 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.

 

Last year Joaquin Rodriguez finally won the classic he could almost not avoid winning at some point during his career. For many years the Spaniard has been almost unbeatable on short, steep climbs and it was always a miracle that victory in the most famous of those kind of finishes had still eluded him. In 2012 he left, however, no doubt about his superiority as he took a convincing victory ahead of Michael Albasini and Philippe Gilbert. This year he has made a repeat win a major target but at the time of writing his participation is uncertain due to a crash 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.

 

The 205km race starts in the city of Binche and heads west on mostly flat roads towards the Ardennes. The climbing starts out gently with the Cote de Naninne (2,6km, 3,7%) and the Cote de Groyenne (2,0km, 3,5%) after 76,5km and 90km of racing respectively. Moments later the riders hit the finishing city of Huy and they now have to tackle the Mur de Huy for the first time as they pass the finish line after 108,5km.

 

At this point in the race an early break has usually gone clear, and 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 race now traditionally tackles a large and a small loop in the hills around Huy. Originally, the short circuit preceded the long one but in 2011 organizers ASO chose to change the order of the loops. Since the riders have to climb the Mur de Huy at the end of both, the new course means that the penultimate passage of the climb is now located much closer to the finish. This has increased the importance of the second ascent of the hill and we have seen a much more aggressive final part of the race in recent editions.

 

The large loop has a length of 65km and takes in no less than 5 climbs before the riders once again hit the Mur with only the short 21,5km loop remaining. In this phase a gradual elimination of riders takes place as the pace picks up in the challenging terrain. Meanwhile, teams start to send riders off the front in an attempt to create a hard race and tire out the teams of the favourites ahead of the crucial part of the race.

 

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 21,5km is the most evident opportunity. Riders with this strategy have been further encouraged by Roman Kreuziger's victory last Sunday and we are sure to see a flurry of attacks as the riders enter Huy for the penultimate time.

 

The small loop contains the climbs of the Cote a'Amay (1,5km, 6,7%) and the Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet (1,2km, 7,5%) which makes the final part of the race a real challenge. The top of the latter is located just 8,5km before the finish, thus providing plenty of attacking opportunities. The hard terrain and the fast pace will make sure that it is a decimated peloton which will head down the descent to the bottom of the Mur which starts with just 1,3km remaining.

 

With everything usually coming down to a final sprint on the Mur, it is no surprise that positioning is a key factor in the race and it is important to enter the ascent in the front end of the peloton if you want to have any chance. 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.

 

The weather

Riders will be happy to see that the spring-like conditions which had finally arrived for Sunday's Amstel Gold Race will stay in Northern Europe. While it will probably be a cloudy day, the temperatures are expected to reach the 20 degrees Celcius mark and it should be another day on which the warm clothes can be left at home.

 

The cold has had plenty of influence on this year's racing but Sunday's race proved that the sudden change in conditions may play an equally crucial role. Pre-race favourite Peter Sagan suffered from cramps as he tried to accelerate on the Cauberg and his only possible explanation was the drastic change of the temperatures. Hopefully the riders are now accustomed to ride in the news conditions.

 

Rain is not forecasted for Wednesday's racing and thus we can hopefully avoid the many crashes which have taken place on the treacherous descents in previous editions. There will be a moderate wind from a southwesterly direction which means that riders will face a headwind on the final 10km run-in to Huy and this will make it harder for attackers to stay away before they hit the lower slopes of the race's landmark climb.

 

The favourites

The Fleche Wallonne is a race for specialists and in the very unique discipline of sprinting up the steepest slopes, the world has a clear number one. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) has not really been beaten in such a finish since his defeat to a mighty Philippe Gilbert in the 2011 Fleche Wallonne and his dominance seems to have increased as the tiny Spaniard has got more experience.

 

His results have not come by coincidence. He is extremely explosive on the steepest slopes and as years have gone by he has learnt how to time his crucial acceleration to perfection. It is no surprise that his first major results were clocked up on the steep Montelupone climb in the Tirreno-Adriatico when the then-domestique at the Caisse d'Epargne team suddenly started to stand out as a formidable rider in his own right.

 

At the time of writing his participation in the race is uncertain as he suffers from a strong contusion at the left femoral biceps due to his crash in the Amstel Gold Race. If he does not feel ready to fight for the victory, he will probably choose to save his energy for Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege which is still his dream race. Hence, he should be right in the mix if he turns up at the start line tomorrow and this makes it impossible not to point him out as the major favourite.

 

The consequences of his crash raise some questions around his possibilities but - in addition to his undeniable explosiveness - he has one crucial attribute which is not related to his physical state: a vast experience in this kind of finishes. As pointed out above, patience is key on the Mur de Huy and numerous formidable contenders have faded on the steep slopes after having put down the hammer way too early. Rodriguez has contested those kind of finishes more than anybody else and he knows exactly when to put down his crucial acceleration and how long he can keep up his tempo. Furthermore, he has finished the Fleche Wallonne every year since 2004 and so he knows the final climb by heart. He has been in the top 2 in the last three editions, and if he does not suffer too much from his crash, it would be a major surprise if he does not make it four in a row tomorrow afternoon.

 

It may come as a surprise to some but Sergio Henao (Sky) could turn out to be the most dangerous threat to Rodriguez' might. The tiny Colombian is another expert in those kind of finishes and it is no surprise that his first major result for the Sky team in his debut season last year was delivered on the steep slopes of the Alto de Ibardin in the Tour of the Basque Country. Since then he has only become better and better, and few who witnessed his performances in the Tour of the Basque Country will doubt that he is already one of the world's best climbers. He seems to have grown immensely due to his participation in the Giro and the Vuelta last year.

 

He won the third stage in the Basque stage race in a finish with slopes of more than 20% and was far superior to the likes of Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte and Alberto Contador on that occasion. Furthermore, he crushed the opposition on the steep Alto do Malhao in February's Volta ao Algarve in another display of his strength. His form is right at its peak as evidenced by his performance in Spain and in the Amstel Gold Race where he bounced back from two crashes to take 6th on a course not favourable to a pure climber.

 

However, he faces one main challenge which may prove costly in tomorrow's race: a lack of experience. He raced the Fleche Wallonne last year and finished a disappointing 14th in his debut year and thus he has not sprinted up the Mur de Huy at race pace more than once. His inexperience was on display in his stage victory in the Basque Country where he had put down the hammer too early and was nearly defeated by Carlos Betancur as he faded in the final part of the climb. The risk to see him make a similar mistake in tomorrow's race is imminent but if he manages to time his acceleration, he will be an extremely dangerous man.

 

The other main threat to Rodriguez is the man who last beat him on the steep slopes in Huy, Philippe Gilbert. For many years, the world champion claimed that Fleche Wallonne was the only Ardennes classic he would never win because the Mur de Huy suited pure climbers more than a classics expert like himself. Nonetheless, he turned out to be completely wrong as he crushed the opposition on the Mur during his incredible 2011 spring campaign.

 

Given his own prediction, it is somewhat paradoxical that his best performance during last year's disappointing Ardennes season was delivered on the Mur de Huy as he took third behind Rodriguez and Michael Albasini. His lack of endurance proved costly in the Amstel Gold Race and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege but in the shorter Fleche Wallonne he was able to put his pure class on show. This proves that the world champion is able to handle the Mur and this year he is much closer to his incredible 2011 form. He was good in the Brabantse Pijl and in the Amstel Gold Race he was the strongest on the Cauberg. Had it not been for the changed finish, he would have taken 2nd behind the lone Roman Kreuziger. The finish of Fleche Wallonne is undoubtedly still not his preferred one but his strong run of form and incredible explosiveness makes it very likely that tomorrow could be the day on which he takes his first classics win since the 2011 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

 

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) had some doubts prior to the Ardennes classics due to a cold which forced him to miss his last preparation race, the Klasika Primavera. He got an enormous confidence boost from his performance in the Amstel Gold Race where he seemed to be the best of the rest behind Gilbert on the Cauberg. He was his usual calm and wily self as he exploited the work of Simon Gerrans before he showed his strength and put in an acceleration to regain contact with the world champion. While he is not as strong as Rodriguez on the steepest slopes, he remains an expert in those kind of finishes and his 2006 victory in the race is testament to that.

 

Last year his mistimed his build-up to the Ardennes classics completely and he was a shadow of his former self in all of the hilly one-day races. This year he has been on fire all season and with the Fleche Wallonne and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege much more suited to his characteristics than the Amstel Gold Race he could be the main challenger to Philippe Gilbert throughout this Ardennes campaign.

 

Peter Sagan's level in a finish like this is the major question prior to the race. The Slovakian had not planned to race the Fleche Wallonne but due to his desire to compete, his team accepted his wish to line up in tomorrow's race. The Mur de Huy will probably be too steep for him and as the race finishes at the top he will have no possibility to regain his strength ahead of a final sprint.

 

Nonetheless, two factors point to the Slovakian as a dangerous outsider. First of all he is in blistering condition at the moment. He was immensely strong in the Brabantse Pijl and the same seemed to be the case on Sunday until cramps took him out of contention. This physical strength cannot have disappeared and this makes him a danger man in tomorrow's race. Secondly, he won the difficult stage to Chieti in the 2012 Tirreno-Adriatico which also has a very steep climb in the final part of the race. However, the ascent is followed by 1km of flat roads and that was certainly an advantage for the Slovakian. Nonetheless, it showed that even the best climbers find it hard to drop him on short, steep climbs and he could be right in the mix tomorrow.

 

Nairo Quintana is Movistar's second option. The Colombian impressed the cycling world in the final time trial of the Vuelta a Pais Vasco where he was a hugely surprising overall winner ahead of time trial expert Richie Porte. The tiny Colombian will relish the steep slopes of the Mur de Huy but as a pure climber he would probably have preferred a longer ascent and he does not seem to have Henao's strength on the short, explosive climbs. Furthermore, it was a surprise to see his weak performance in the Amstel Gold Race in which he was dropped from the peloton very early in the race. However, the constant battle for position on the narrow Dutch roads did not suit the young Colombian and he may have chosen to save his energy for the two classics that really suit him. He may have to work for Valverde tomorrow but on the Mur de Huy the legs do the talking and Quintana could end up as Movistar's best finisher.

 

Jelle Vanendert (Lotto) was the most consistent Ardennes performer last year where he took top 10 places in all three races. This year his build-up was hampered by illness which forced him to abandon the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and to miss the Brabantse Pijl. Hence, questions surrounded the strong Belgian ahead of the Amstel Gold Race but he looked really strong throughout the day and only the new finish prevented him from a much higher finish than the final 13th place. He is really strong in uphill sprints as his 2nd place on the Cauberg last year and his 4th and 6th places in the last two editions of the Fleche Wallonne show. The difficult finish to tomorrow's race is the one that suits him best and while it will be a surprise to see him end up victorious, he will not be too far off.

 

Finally, John Gadret (Ag2r) deserves a mention. The tiny Frenchman has followed the same schedule for a number of years in which a late start due his love for cyclo-cross kicked off a build-up for the Giro during the month of April. This year he started his season much earlier and have chosen to skip the Giro in favour of the Tour. Hence, he has been much stronger in the early part of the season than usual and the Fleche Wallonne and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege are his major spring goals. He chose to skip the battle for position on the Dutch roads last Sunday and have arrived with fresh legs for the race that suits him the most. He is a pure climber who relishes the steepest slopes and with his strong condition he should be in the mix on the Mur de Huy. He proved his current level in the final road stage in the Basque Country where he managed to join a very select group on the steep Alto de Olaberria and a surprisingly strong time trial on the final day landed him an overall top 10 finish. Look out for the tiny Frenchman in the sprint on the Mur de Huy tomorrow.

 

***** Joaquin Rodriguez

**** Sergio Henao, Philippe Gilbert

*** Alejandro Valverde, Peter Sagan, Nairo Quintana, Jelle Vanendert, John Gadret

** Michael Albasini, Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Michael Kwiatkowski, Daniel Martin, Bauke Mollema, Alberto Contador, Roman Kreuziger, Carlos Betancur, Ryder Hesjedal

* Daniel Moreno, Giampaolo Caruso, Pieter Weening, Peter Stetina, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Diego Ulissi, Igor Anton, Jose Rujano, Robinson Chalapud, Enrico Gasparotto, Wouter Poels

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