23 April 2014
In between Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we’ll find Flèche Wallonne. This is the 78th edition of the race and as always, it all comes down to the feared Mur de Huy. A climb the riders have to overcome three times during the race.
Despite 11 short climbs and 199 km in the saddle, this race is almost always only about the last 1.3 km up Mur de Huy. The climb has an average gradient of 9.3 % with parts of 19 % on the way towards the top. No break has made it all the way in Flèche Wallonne since Igor Astarloa won in 2003. The last 10 years, the peloton arrived together at the bottom of Mur de Huy. Personally, I doubt this scenario will change this year.
Many will try to get a gap before reaching Mur de Huy for the last time. However, with BMC, Katusha, Garmin, Lampre and Movistar to set the pace, it will be extremely difficult to keep the peloton at bay. The best chance to get away in the final is when the peloton gets to Mur de Huy for the second time of the day. From the top, there are only 23.5 km to go and a strong group of riders from the right teams may be able to get a solid gap. Still, if BMC and Katusha aren’t represented up front, I think the break is doomed. These two teams simply can’t afford to lose control of the race.
If a break does get away, they need a gap of at least 30 seconds to the peloton before starting on Mur de Huy for the last time. When the big favorites start attacking on the steep gradients, the gap will drop rapidly and everything can be turned upside down. Just ask Carlos Betancur. Last year, he jumped from the peloton early on during the climb. The Colombian got a huge gap but couldn’t keep up the pace and finished 3rd. If you want to win Flèche Wallonne, you really need to time your attack on Mur de Huy perfectly.
One rider who knows everything about timing his attacks perfectly is Philippe Gilbert. After letting Samuel Sanchez attack on Cauberg in Amstel Gold Race, putting Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde in red, Gilbert counter-attacked and left everybody else fighting for second place. In theory, Mur de Huy is too steep for Gilbert to drop the rest like he did on Cauberg. It’s true that he did just that when he won this race in 2011, but I seriously doubt he will ever reach that level again. That being said, Gilbert may not need to reach his 2011-level to win Flèche Wallonne this year. At the beginning of the season three of the big favorites for this race were Sergio Henao (second last year), Carlos Betancur (third last year) and Purito Rodriguez (winner in 2012). However, for various reasons, none of these three is now among the favorites. This means that riders who usually can’t match these puncheurs on gradients of 19 %, now suddenly have a solid chance of winning. Philippe Gilbert knows Mur de Huy very well and he know exactly where to attack.
Last year, Dani Moreno took many by surprise when he - in the big ring - flew past everybody else on the steep gradients. After crashing out of Amstel Gold Race a few days earlier, the big favorite, Purito Rodriguez, decided to switch role in the final and work for his teammate Moreno instead. It paid off. This year, Dani Moreno starts with number 1 on his back, and once again, he seems to be the designated team leader after Purito crashed in Amstel Gold Race. However, this time, it won’t come as a surprise if Moreno wins Flèche Wallonne. He’s one of the best riders in the world on a steep finish like this one. He finished 9th in Amstel Gold Race last Sunday where he proved to be in great shape. Dani Moreno says he feels like he did last year before taking on this race. I think the Spaniard will make podium again this year. On a good day, he might even repeat last year’s stunning performance.
Alejandro Valverde did everything right leading up to Cauberg in Amstel Gold Race. He just didn’t have the legs to follow Philippe Gilbert. In hindsight, it might have been a mistake to follow the attack from Samuel Sanchez, leaving Gilbert unmarked on the other side of the road. On paper, Flèche Wallonne is the one of the three Ardennes Classics least suited for Valverde. However, you can’t count him out. He can’t match the kick of riders like Purito on the steep gradients, but in this field he has a chance. Remember, the last part of the climb “only” kicks up with 6 %, leaving the riders with a fast finish a good chance of making podium. Daniel Martin is the perfect example. Last year, he started out Mur de Huy in a horrible position, but managed to sprint past more than 10 riders on the final 100 meters to finish fourth. In case no one is able to make a solid gap on the steep gradients, Valverde may be able to do something similar. Don’t forget Valverde has a real killer instinct. He always finds extra energy when he sees the finishing line.
Before Amstel Gold Race, I didn’t plan to include Jelle Vanendert among the main contenders in Flèche Wallonne. However, due to his impressive performance last Sunday, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made podium this Wednesday. Injuries kept the Belgian out of the spotlight last year, but now he seems to be back in great shape again. Many of the riders in Vuelta al Pais Vasco pointed out that Jelle Vanendert looked strong. He proved that to be true in Amstel Gold Race. He couldn’t follow the powerful attacks on Cauberg but it might be another story on Mur de Huy. Vanendert doesn’t have a kick like Gilbert or Valverde, but he’s strong on the steep gradients. I don’t think Jelle Vanendert will win Flèche Wallonne, but a spot on the podium is definitely within his reach.
My personal outsider for this year’s Flèche Wallonne is Diego Ulissi. This season, he started out in a very strong way, finishing 3rd overall in Tour Down Under after taking an impressive stage win in Stirling. Despite making podium in the first World Tour stage race of the season, Ulissi’s focus is on the one-day races. Any race with a steep climb close to the finishing line is good for the young Italian. He has a powerful kick and he’s very fast on the line. He didn’t have a great Amstel Gold Race but he’s still confident ahead of Flèche Wallonne. Lampre-Merida has Rui Costa and Damiano Cunego in the race as well. However, Mur de Huy doesn’t suit Rui Costa very well. His focus is most likely on Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Therefore, I think the Rui Costa will be riding as a super domestique here. Don’t be surprised if the world champion hits the front of the peloton trying to set up Diego Ulissi in the finale.
For other strong outsiders look to the Garmin duo Dan Martin & Tom-Jelte Slagter and riders with a good finish like Michal Kwiatkowski and Bauke Mollema. Unless Slagter has a super day, I don’t see any of these riders getting away alone on Mur de Huy. However, they are all very fast on the line and may be able to secure a top result due to their sprinting abilities.
If you are looking for a super joker, my pick is Julian Arredondo. He’s a pure climber with a strong kick on steep gradients. Arredondo won two mountain stages in Tour de San Luis in January and did very well in Tirreno-Adriatico last month, finishing 5th overall. On the extremely steep finish on stage 5 (where Alberto Contador won the race after a long solo attack), Arredondo caught many riders on the final climb, finishing 9th on the stage. Flèche Wallonne is one of the Colombian’s big goals this season. His idol is Purito Rodriguez and the two riders’ characteristics are very much alike. Julian Arredondo is only 25 years old. This is his first season on the World Tour. Personally, I have no doubts he will win this race one day. It may not be this year, but I don’t think he will be far off.
As of Monday evening, Julian Arredondo still hasn't manage to resolve his visa problems. This means the Colombian will travel to Flèche Wallonne without knowing if he will be able to start or not. It also means that Arredondo won't be as relaxed as the other contenders. Therefore, we may have to wait another year before he excels on Mur de Huy. Update: It has now been confirmed that Julian Arrendondo will take part in Flèche Wallonne 2014.