Sunday’s thrilling Amstel Gold Race showed that unlike the cobbled gladiators, the hill warriors came to win, with strong teams that didn’t shy from controlling the race and chasing breaks. Despite being heavily marked, Philippe Gilbert and his OmegaPharma-Lotto team stepped up to the challenge and rode the perfect race to deliver Gilbert’s back-to-back win.
While Amstel, like Liege-Bastogne-Liege, is characterized by its constant undulating hills and valleys (plus-minus the obvious smell of booze on the climbs), Fleche Wallonne is a very unique race that is hard to predict. Yes, it is part of the Ardennes classics series. Yes, pocket-rockets excel in this race. Yes, it is nestled between Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But perhaps like de Scheldeprijs sandwiched position between de Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, Fleche Wallone is at best a step-sister of the two Sunday siblings. Initially intended to be a showcase race connecting the two ends of Wallonie, from Tournai to Liege, it started as a Saturday race prior to LBL. Many route changes and re-schedules later, it found its identity as a Wednesday race and as the race that goes up the Mur de Huy: a beast of a climb topping 26% grade on the inside line, averaging 9.3%, going for 1300 meters. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why only fools (or the strongest riders) take the inside line at 700 meters from the finish, with most riders preferring to take the much more reasonable 20% grade on the outside line. Not one to shy from showcasing their best climb, Fleche Wallone organizers make the race go through it not twice, but thrice.
Historically, very few riders have won Fleche Wallone and LBL back-to-back. Ferdi Kubler did the double twice, in 1951 and 1952, before the Mur de Huy, and when it was run the day before LBL. Then nobody could match up the two races until Argentin in 1991. More recently, we have seen Davide Rebellin in his Ardennes treble in 2004, and Alejandro Valverde in 2008.
What are the key ingredients to winning Fleche Wallone? Excepting Armstrong’s surprise win in 1995, the modern version has seen a rather large group at the finale. The race lacks the constantly lumpy profile of AGR and LBL, with a fast downhill towards the final ascent of the Mur de Huy that favors a re-grouping. The winner must know how to pace himself, with a winning burst at the end. Many pretenders have lost their cool too early, only to be overhauled in the last false flat. The absence of last year’s top and third finishers Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador is a bit disappointing. In their absense, who can win this year’s FW? We use a 5-hill rating system to look at the favorites:
Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez comes into Fleche Wallone as the clear favorite. In recent years, he has been a constant presence in the drag up the Huy, and as it favors experience to guide a climber’s sense of timing, Rodriguez is due. He had an excellent showing in the finale of Amstel Gold, and despite the fact that the Cauberg is not sufficiently steep to favor his punchy sprint, still pulled in 2nd place. Midweek, with a strong team behind him that includes former winner Danilo Di Luca and sniper Alexandre Kolobnev, expect Rodriguez to mount a serious threat up the Huy. This year is his year.
Euskaltel-Euskadi has two interesting cards to play for Fleche Wallone: Igor Anton and Samuel Sanchez. After having Sanchez in the finale for years, Anton had a breakthrough Fleche Wallone last year and had a strong showing, even if it appeared he attacked too early and blew his chance. Between the two of them Euskaltel deserves a 4-hills rating and is likely to land a podium spot. Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador seems to have shed his legal problems behind and with Laurent Jalabert tipping him to be this year’s winner, deserves a mention here. His exodus to Saxo brought with him many key helpers, netting him a strong team of supporters.
Another pocket rocket, Damiano Cunego has a fairly motivated Lampre team behind him, although it’s unsure if his form has overcome his recent illness. He did make a few marks in AGR, but appears to still be a step behind in the explosive department. Cunego seems to always find his second wind rather quickly, but his recent failures in following the first acceleration from his rivals have cost him his chances. A recent otitis does not help overcome this lack of top-end acceleration and new teammate Michele Scarponi is not on the start list. Thus Cunego’s otherwise 4-hill status nets him only 3-hills for Fleche Wallone.
Team Leopard-Trek usually brings a strong hilly classics contingent, even if a few good support riders moved elsewhere. Andy Schleck appears in very good form, consistent with his ability to bring himself up to top speed very quickly with little racing. Frank, on the other hand, seems to have faltered a bit despite his showing in Criterium International. Recent recruit Fabian Wegmann hasn’t show himself very much so far, but constant worker Jacob Fuglsang finished 4th in Amstel. Between the lot of them, they’re a 3-hill favorite, but consider that flexible with an upward trend if Andy can get another teammate or two at the front in the last 20 km.
An obvious crowd favorite is (relatively) local son Philippe Gilbert, hot off his wins in de Brabantse Pijl (aptly named la Fleche Brabanconne in French) and Amstel Gold. Despite a strong team, though, his characteristic is poorly matched to the unique challenge of Mur de Huy, where last year he finished 6th. A strong Jurgen Van den Broeck may be the ticket to the team’s success, but the Fleche Wallone rewards experience on the slopes of Huy.
Rabobank had a decent showing at AGR, up to the foot of the Cauberg. It is surprising that Oscar Freire was on the contention up to that point, but let’s not forget that now they have the combination of Carlos Barredo and Luis Leon Sanchez. Barredo has a proven record at least as a super-domestique in the classics, and LL Sanchez can win a stage or two in multi-day races, be it short or long. With Robert Gesink usually in contention, they may have the problem of having too many chiefs and yet no winners for the hilliest classics. Perhaps the team chemistry is still missing, or maybe they’re just waiting for the last piece to fall into place.
Last year’s 2nd place in AGR and 10th place in Fleche Wallone puts Ryder Hesjedal on the contenders list. Will Garmin-Cervelo’s breakthrough spring season continue or will they lost their chances as stronger teams emerge and turn the chaos on the cobbles into well-controlled hillclimbs? Hesjedal did maintain contact all the way up to the steepest slopes, even if at times it appears the credit is due to his ability to control and maintain his tempo in the flatter parts of the climb. Tactical riding may turn him into a winner but I rate this as an outside chance unless there is significant chaos in the run-down to the foot of the final climb.
Chris Horner attacked in the early part of Huy last year but still managed to net a top-ten finish in reward for his do-or-die move. Despite his age, he has amazing resilience. A motivated Radio Shack team will give him good support, especially with Ben Hermans on form. However, he tends to lag behind a bit in the steepest slopes.
Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov and Remi di Gregorio may be able to step up to the challenge, although my bet is with Vinokourov. He has not had a strong record on the Huy. However, his teeth-gritting attacks and punchy climbing make him a constant threat.
What about outside contenders such as one of the more aggressive French riders? Thomas Voekler has had an excellent start of season up to the Ronde. Since he peaks only about once a year, has he missed his peak? It seems that his form has been at least non-increasing lately. Sylvain Chavanel on the other hand, was clearly hungry for more in the Ronde, and his recent showing in Paris-Roubaix shows he may have some legs left. It is not clear if his team is very strong for the hilly classics, but for sure they are eager to get more results. They are perhaps the only team that can win Gent-Wevelgem with apparent ease and still be seen as a failure. I personally think that Liquigas’ Peter Sagan can be a very strong contender for the hilly classics, if not for Liquigas’ obsession with the cobbled classics. Simon Gerrans had an excellent showing in Amstel Gold, as did Sky as a team. We’ll see if this will translate into a good result on the Huy.
Who do you think will win on the Huy? Share your thoughts below.