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Starting at 13.25 CEST you can follow the big battle on the Mur de Huy on

Photo: Sirotti


23.04.2014 @ 13:55 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 continues the gradual transition towards longer and harder climbs and where 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 and it's the end of the race that puts the race up there with the really big ones. 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 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 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. 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, 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. Like all other midweek races, it is also shorter than both the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne 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 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. 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 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, setting the scene for the next phase of the cycling calendar, the grand tours.


Last year's race was predicted to be another one for defending champion Joaquim Rodriguez who is currently almost unrivalled when it comes to sprinting up the steepest slopes in the world. However, the Katusha captain had crashed at the Amstel Gold Race and was not 100%, opening the door for a wider list of contenders. Nonetheless, the title remained in the Katusha ranks as Daniel Moreno got carte blanche to ride for himself in a finale that suits him down to the ground. After Carlos Betancur had made a surprise attack very early on the climb to open a big gap, Moreno launched one of his trademark accelerations to take a very convincing solo win. Betancur did surprisingly well to hold on almost to the finish, only getting passed by Moreno and another specialist in these kind of finishes, Sergio Henao, and narrowly holding off Daniel Martin to take the final spot on the podium. Moreno will be back to defend his title as he lines up alongside Rodriguez while Betancur - still recovering from his recent knee injury - and Martin will both try to do better than they did one year ago. On the other hand, Henao has been put on inactive status by his Sky team due to abnormal blood values and so won't be back to defend his runner-up spot from last year's edition of the 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.


This year a number of changes have been made. After several years of starting from Charleroi, Binche was the point of departure in 2013 but now the race will take off from Bastogne much further south. The big circuit has been shorted from 65km to 64km and slightly changed to allow for a return to the Cote d'Ahin after a one-year absence. The main change, however, is the shortened small circuit whose length has been brought down from 31.5km to just 23.5km. While this means that the final two passages of the Mur come closer to each other than ever before, it also means that the final circuit will be less hilly, with the Cote d'Ereffe being the only other climb in addition to the Mur.


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 shortened 199km race starts in the city of Bastogne and heads north on mostly flat roads towards the Ardennes. The climbing starts out gently with the Cote de Bellaire (1km, 6.8%) and the Cote d'Ahin (2.1km, 5.9%) after 84km and 101km 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 111.5km.


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 64km. In addition to the Mur, it contains five climbs which makes this part the toughest one. The Cote d'Ereffe (2.2km, 5.9%, 124.5km mark), Cote de Bellaire (1km, 6.8%, 143.5km mark), Cote de Bohisseau (1.3km, 7.6%, 151km mark), Cote de Bousalle (1.7km, 4.9%, 154km mark) and Cote d'Ahin (2.1km, 5.9%, 165km mark) are spread evenly throughout the circuit and make the second half of the race a tough challenge. At the end, the riders again go up the Mur to start the final 23.5km 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 maing the race as hard as possible


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 23.5km is the most evident opportunity. Riders with this strategy have been further encouraged by Roman Kreuziger's solo victory at last year's Amstel and we can expect to see a flurry of attacks as the riders enter Huy for the penultimate time.


The small circuit contains only a single climb, the Cote d'Ereffe (2.2km, 5.9%) which comes 10.5km from the finish. Even though the terrain is never flat, it certainly favours the peloton over the attackers. The aggressive racing is guaranteed to continue but by the time, the riders reach the bottom of the Mur, it is almost guaranteed that all escapees have been caught, with no rider having won from an escape since Mario Aerts in 2002. However, 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. 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 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.





The weather

Rain had been forecasted for last Sunday's Amstel Gold Race but it ended up being a dry day and both scenarios are again possible for the second of the Ardennes classics. Most of the time it should be a beautiful day for a bike race as it will be partly sunny and the temperature will reach a very pleasant maximum of 20 degrees.


However, there is a chance of a shower late in the afternoon that may influence the outcome. Wet roads on very steep climbs make it much harder for riders to get out of the saddle as their back wheel may slip and this favours certain riders over others. As the race is scheduled to finish rather early in the afternoon, the most likely scenario is that the roads will be dry but the riders have to be prepared for both possibilities.


There will only be a light wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will have a cross-tailwind in the opening part of the race while they will have all kinds of wind directions on the two final circuits. There will be crosswind in the lower part of the Mur de Huy and a headwind and the end but it should have little impact on the outcome.


The favourites

Of the Ardennes classics, Fleche Wallonne is by far the most controlled and it is 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. 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 will probably require brutal weather conditions for it to happen again. Wednesday will be a perfect day for a bike race and so we expect it all to come down to a final battle on the steep Mur.


That doesn't mean that we won't see some aggressive racing. Most teams know that they have no chance to beat the specialists in this kind of finale and they will try to change the script. However, Katusha and BMC - maybe with a bit of help from Movistar or Garmin - will do their utmost to keep things together and those teams are strong enough to get it their way.


If we had written this preview last Saturday, we would have made Joaquim Rodriguez the overwhelming favourite. When he is at his best, he is virtually unbeatable in this kind of finishes and he has done nothing to hide that he is in peak form these days. After his crash in the Amstel Gold Race, however, things have dramatically changed, and Rodriguez' condition is now a bit uncertain.


Rodriguez did a test today and has decided to start the race but with a bruised rib, he will be in a lot of pain, especially on the climbs. It seems that he mainly does the race to prepare for Liege-Bastogne-Liege which he has described as his biggest goal of the entire season.


It was always going to be a delicate affair for Katusha to handle the Fleche Wallone. With both the 2012 and 2013 winners in their ranks, it would be difficult to decide on the leadership role. On one hand, Rodriguez would be the obvious favourite to win the race but on the other hand, Daniel Moreno would deserve a chance to try to defend his title. The new situation makes things clearer and it now seems that it will be all for Moreno in Wednesday's race.


In that sense, the situation is much like it was one year ago. Back then, Rodriguez had also crashed in the Amstel Gold Race but lined up in Fleche Wallonne more with an eye on Liege than a defence of his title. He still ended the race in 6th but on that day Moreno was the captain. This year it seems that the roles will be similar.


However, Katusha are certainly in no bad position. With a clear captaincy role, Moreno now stands out as the favourite to add another win to his palmares. The Spaniard may not be at Rodriguez' extremely high level in this kind of steep finishes but he is not far off. In fact, the pair of close friends are probably the two best riders in the world in these finales.


Last year Moreno proved his skills in these kind of finishes on a number of occasions. He not only won the Fleche Wallonne, he also won the Vuelta stage to Valdepenas de Jaen whose finishing climb is even steeper than the Mur de Huy. That day he even beat Rodriguez convincingly despite the team captain being in such a good condition that he would finish the race in fourth overall.


If he is at the same level as he was in the first week of the 2013 Vuelta, Moreno will be almost impossible to beat on the Mur de Huy and it seems that he is very close to his peak condition. Yesterday he finished 9th in Amstel, his best ever result in the Dutch classic and much better than his performance in 2013 when he went on to demolish his rivals in the Fleche Wallonne. Last year he was hampered by allergies in the first part of the season but this year he doesn't seem to have the same kind of problems.  With 10th overall in Oman and 8th in Tirreno, he has had had his best season start for years and nothing suggests that he is not at a much higher level now than he was when he took those results. With Rodriguez and an in-form Giampaolo Caruso to set him up for one of his trademark accelerations, Moreno stands out as the favourite to win another title in Fleche Wallonne.


However, Moreno faces several other past winners of the race and one of them is certainly in peak condition at the moment. Philippe Gilbert was by far the strongest rider in the Amstel Gold Race and he seems to be close to the level he had when he won all Ardennes classics in 2011.


After winning the Amstel Gold Race back then, he claimed that he would never win Fleche Wallonne as the Mur de Huy was too steep for him to go up against the lighter climbers. Nonetheless, he went on to take a dominant win just a few days later to prove himself wrong and he now heads into the race, knowing that he can win the race. In fact, it is a peculiar fact that in 2012 when he was far from his best level in the Ardennes, he actually did best in Fleche Wallonne where he finished 3rd overall. That may have had something to do with the shorter distance but it certainly proves that he is one of the strongest riders even on a steep climb like the Mur de Huy.


Last year Gilbert was also the strongest rider on the Cauberg and had taken so much confidence from that performance that he hit out early on the Mur de Huy before fading back to finish outside the top 10. This year he is obviously stronger than he was 12 months ago but he still has to gauge his effort better than he did in 2013. He is not yet at the level of 2011 and may not just power away from his rivals as he did back then. He will have to play his cards much more wisely to avoid blowing up as it has happened to so many hopeful Fleche contenders. Gilbert is obviously in great condition but the Amstel Gold Race is the one of the classics that suits him best and he will have a much harder task on hand in Wednesday's race. Nonetheless, there is a great chance that his current strength will allow him to add a second title in Huy to his palmares.


We had made Alejandro Valverde our favourite to win the Amstel Gold Race but the Spaniard was not as strong as we had expected. For a climber like Valverde, however, the Dutch classic is the one that suits him the least and he will be more in his favoured terrain in the two Belgian races. After all, it is no coincidence that he has never won in Limburg but has won both Fleche and Liege in the past.


Valverde is a great rider for these kind of steep finishes but he is not a true specialist like Rodriguez and Moreno. There is no doubt that he is better suited to Liege and a third win in La Doyenne is at the top of his list of priorities. Last year he backed off a bit on the Mur de Huy to stay fresh for the only Ardennes monument but still managed to take 7th.


There is a chance that he will do so again in this year's edition of the midweek classic but the most likely scenario is that he will go all out for the win. He has already won both races in the same year and his ability to recover has only improved over the years. If he realizes that he can't win, he will maybe back off a bit but when he hits the Mur, it will be with the intention to go for glory.


As a past winner of the race, Valverde knows how to handle the Mur de Huy and last year he proved his skills in steep finales when he beat Rodriguez in Valdepenas de Jaen in the Vuelta. In addition to his win, he has finished 2nd in the 2007 edition of Fleche and in the 2012 Vuelta he was 3rd on the steep Mirador del Ezaro climb in the Vuelta on a stage that was again won by Rodriguez.


Valverde may not be quite as strong in these kind of finishes as he was earlier in his career but overall he seems to be a more consistent and stronger rider. He may reap the benefits of this in Liege but it will be a disadvantage in Wednesday's race. On the other hand, Valverde has had his best ever season start and was very close to the level of a reborn Contador in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. With that kind of form, he can get far and a second win in Huy is certainly within his reach.


Rodriguez may no longer be a favourite to win the race as he will probably put himself at the service of Moreno but it would be dangerous to rule out the Spaniard completely. If Moreno is not at his best or is involved in any kind of accident along the way, Rodriguez may decide to give it a shot. He may be bothered by his bruised ribs but as the best rider in these kind of finishes, he may win even if he is only at 90%.


This year he has done far less racing than usual as he heads into a hard period that includes both the classics and the Giro. In fact, the only race he has done between the end of February and the classics is the Volta a Catalunya. However, he won that race in impressive fashion and that was certainly no mean feat as it involved beating the likes of Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana in the race's first mountain stage. Since then he has been training at altitude to be ready for his big objectives.


If anyone thought that he would be easing into the classics to stay fresh for the Giro, his attitude has proved them wrong. When arriving in Belgium for the Ardennes races, he made it clear that Liege-Bastogne-Liege is more important to him than any grand tour and he has repeatedly spoken about his great desire to win La Doyenne. There is no doubt that he is currently at 100% and if the early chase work by Katusha in the Amstel Gold Race was a further testament to that as that race doesn't suit him very well after the finale has been changed. However, he obviously believed in his chances which proves that he must be feeling really well. The main question is whether he will go full gas in the finale and is not too hampered by his injuries. If he gives it a try, he will be very hard to beat.


Daniel Martin is another rider that excels in these kind of finishes and it is no coincidence that he has finished 4th and 6th in the two most recent editions of the race. While originally expected to develop into a pure climber, his forte now seems to be the hilly classics where he can combine his great climbing legs with his explosiveness and fast sprint to come away with the results. He seems to be at his best in the really long, hard races and the Fleche Wallonne may be a bit too short and easy to suit him perfectly but he is well-suited to an uphill sprint on the Mur de Huy.


His condition is a bit uncertain as he has arrived straight from his first ever high-altitude training camp and he doesn't know how he will react to coming back down to sea level. At the same time, his main goal is the Giro and he admits that he doesn't expect to be as strong in the classics as he was 12 months ago. Furthermore, he abandoned the Amstel Gold Race with a knee injury but that was more of a precautionary measure to not take any risks ahead of the two races that suit him the most and he fully expects to be ready for Wednesday's race. In fact, he has been surprised by his great feelings over the last few days and we wouldn't be surprised if he ends up on the podium.


Michal Kwiatkowski had his first taste of the Fleche Wallonne 12 months ago and he finished 5th in the race in his first attempt. Since then he has obviously become a lot stronger. His results in the first part of the season clearly show that but it was even more evident in the Amstel Gold Race. One year ago he could not follow the best and got back in contention for a podium spot very close to the line. This year he was right up there with the likes of Valverde and Gerrans and we can expect him to be a lot stronger than he was in 2013.


Kwiatkowski is both fast and explosive and so has all the skills to excel on the Mur de Huy. His main disadvantage is his lack of experience as so many hopeful young riders have blown up on the Mur. However, Kwiatkowski is a very wise rider who knows himself fabulously well and he usually rides at his own pace to avoid going too deep. He made a small mistake on the Cauberg in the Amstel Gold Race but will have learnt from his mistake and should again gauge his effort more wisely. Kwiatkowski is a very strong rider but the Dutch classic also proved that he is not quite at the level of the likes of Valverde and Gilbert yet and so it is hard to imagine him actually winning the race. However, a podium spot is certainly within his reach.


All year there have been small indications that Jelle Vanendert is back to his best but it was finally put on show when he finished 2nd in Amstel Gold Race. He may have lacked the explosiveness to go with the best on the Cauberg but he wasn't far off and used a combination of power and wise tactic to take second.


Vanendert may not be a true specialist in the Mur de Huy finish but he has performed well here in the past. In 2012 he finished just outside the podium in fourth and in 2011 he was 6th despite working for Gilbert. This year he seems to be right back up at the level he had two years ago and so nothing suggests that he can't take his first podium place in the Fleche Wallonne.


After a slow start, Bauke Mollema found his legs in the second half of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, finishing 5th in the queen stage and putting in a great performance in a breakaway one day later. He went on to confirm his great condition at the Amstel Gold Race where he took 7th despite doing most of the work in the chase group that ended up sprinting for 6th.


Mollema may mostly be known for his stage race results but he is actually an excellent rider for the hilly one-day races. In fact, he has finished in the top 10 in six of the last 7 Ardennes classics, only missing out in last year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Those results include 7th and 9th at Fleche Wallonne and the race suits him rather well.


Mollema may not be quite as explosive as the likes of Moreno, Valverde, Rodriguez and Gilbert but he is actually a rather punchy rider. He performs well in these kind of steep finishes as he proved in the 2011 Vuelta when he finished 4th in Valdepenas de Jaen and 3rd in San Lorenzo De El Escorial. This year he seems to be riding better than he did in both 2012 and 2013 and so there is a great chance that he will improve on his best in Fleche Wallonne. A podium spot will be difficult to achieve but a top 5 is certainly within his reach.


If he had had a seamless preparation, Carlos Betancur would have been one of the major favourites but since his win in Paris-Nice, nothing has gone according to plan for the talented Colombian. He fell ill during the Volta a Catalunya and then suffered from a knee injury. He was treated with antibiotics that left him with no energy at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which he was forced to abandon.


Originally, the Ardennes classics were his first big target of the season and he certainly has the skills to excel in these races. Last year he was third in Fleche Wallonne and fourth in Liege in his very first participation in the Ardennes. On paper, the short, steep Mur de Huy suits his explosiveness down to the ground and if he has not been set too much back by his health issues, he will be a podium candidate.


His agent has said that all the hard work cannot have been completely wasted and he expects him to be strong in Wednesday's race. With his lack of recent racing, the shorter distance should suit him better and Fleche Wallonne is probably his best chance. After the Amstel Gold Race, Christophe Riblon said that Ag2r will support Betancur fully in Huy, indicating that they believe in the Colombian. He was riding solidly in yesterday's race and seemed to be mainly using it to get back into the rhythm of competition. It is hard to imagine him actually winning the race but when it comes to Betancur, everything is possible.


Wout Poels excelled in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he was clearly number three in the climbing hierarchy, just below the formidable pair of Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde. He used a combination of tactics and strong legs to win the queen stage and came away from the race with a top 10 finish. The performance proves that he has now fully recovered from his 2012 Tour de France crash and he is obviously better than ever before.


In the past he has had big ambitions for the hilly classics but has always come up a bit short. With his higher level, however, this is set to change in 2014 and he obviously has the skills to excel in these races. He did the Brabantse Pijl and despite putting in an aggressive performance, he wasn't too impressive. That race, however, might have been a bit too easy for him and the same could be said for Amstel Gold Race where a mechanical took him out of the finale. He has done nothing to hide that Fleche is his big goal this week and he will be going full gas up the Mur de Huy. In 2011, he finished 2nd in the Vuelta stage to Valdepenas de Jaen so he surely knows how to handle short, steep finishes. He also finished 2nd on the Angliru that year and seems to excel when it gets really steep. Kwiatkowski may be the Omega Pharma-Quick Step captain but the team certainly has two cards to play.


Finally, we will point to the big joker. Julian Arredondo may be neo-professional but he has had a fantastic start to his career. He won two stages in the Tour de San Luis and finished 5th in his first ever WorldTour race at Tirreno-Adriatico. The Colombian has made it clear that his dream race is the Fleche Wallonne and it is certainly no coincidence. He is a punchy, explosive climber who excels on short, steep climbs and it is no wonder that he has fallen in love with the Mur de Huy.


He hasn't raced since he fell ill in Catalunya but has been preparing his first Giro d'Italia in his native Colombia. However, he is now back in Europe to get a first taste of the one-day race he would love to win. Due to vias problems, he has arrived late and claims that he won't be competitive and will only be there to gain experience. Nontheless, we won't rule out a surprise from the punchy Colombian.


***** Daniel Moreno

**** Philippe Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde

*** Joaquim Rodriguez, Daniel Martin, Michal Kwiatkowski

** Jelle Vanendert, Bauke Mollema, Carlos Betancur, Wout Poels, Julian Arredondo

* Tom-Jelte Slagter, Rui Costa, Damiano Cunego, Diego Ulissi, Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet, Warren Barguil, Michael Albasini, Mathias Frank, Frank Schleck, Enrico Gasparotto, Ryder Hesjedal, Samuel Sanchez, Roman Kreuziger, Simon Yates, Ivan Santaromita, Julien Simon



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