La Flèche Wallonne – which literally translates as ‘The Walloon Arrow’ – is the second of three races that make up the Ardennes Classics, and is rather bizarrely sandwiched mid-week between the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Originally a race started to boost sales of a newspaper in the 1930s, it’s certainly made it on to the WorldTour calendar on racing merit.
It’s a race which is perhaps most famous for the scary ascent of the Mur de Huy, the hill on which the race has finished since 1983. It’s a terrifying climb of over one kilometre, with the maximum gradient reaching an eye-watering 26%. Rather cruelly, the race organisers make the riders climb the Huy not once, but three times. Ouch.
Flèche Wallonne starts in the Belgian town of Charleroi, and starts off rather flat, before gradually getting more and more undulating nearer the finish. There are ten recognised climbs, with the first coming after 70km in the saddle. The final four are all over a kilometre long, and all boast an average gradient of over 6.7%.
Rather unsurprisingly, therefore, it’s the puncheurs like Philippe Gilbert who excel on this race. The descent down towards the final climb up to the finish means it’s often quite bunched together until the ascent to the line, where the likes of Gilbert and his fellow punchy climbers will make their moves. However, this year the parcours has been tweaked slightly, with the distance between the final two passages of the Mur reduced and an extra climb inserted in the hope of stretching out the field and encouraging an attack before the climactic ascent.
Like the other two Ardennes Classics, it’s an unpredictable but exciting race. This year even more so, but I’ll come on to that later on.
Winners in the last five years:
2007: Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner)
2008: Kim Kirchen (High Road)
2009: Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni-Androni)
2010: Cadel Evans (BMC)
2011: Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
What happened last year?
Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert continued his superb form to take his second of three Ardennes Classics. The Belgian attacked near the top of the Mur de Huy and left the rest of the field in his wake.
An early breakaway had established a 17-minute lead, but the real action did not occur until the final kilometre. It was all together at the foot of the Mur, despite dangerous late moves from this year’s Amstel Gold winner Enrico Gasparotto, Tejay Van Garderen, Thomas Lovkvist and Alexander Kolobnev.
Finally Garmin’s Christophe Le Mevel attacked with 500 metres to go. However, he only succeeded in providing a lead-out for Gilbert, who accelerated away in the dominating fashion we had become accustomed to win by three seconds.
As he had done at Amstel Gold three days previously, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez finished second behind Gilbert, with his compatriot Samuel Sanchez claiming the bottom step of the podium a further two seconds back.
1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 4:54:57
2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:03
3. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:05
4. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +0:06
5. Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) same time
6. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t
7. Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek) s/t
8. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:09
9. Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo) +0:12
10. Paul Martens (Rabobank) s/t
Who to watch
This race is even more unpredictable than usual, mainly due to the lack of form shown by the favourites in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. Happily (for me, at least!) Philippe Gilbert showed better form than many feared he might, with his fifth place showing that it’s not too late for him to salvage his spring.
The 29-year-old said his form is getting better with every day:
I knew my condition would be back one day. Cycling is an extremely demanding sport, so when we suffer it is not always easy to be good during a race. Being in better condition helps me to see the race, to analyse it and to place myself in the front.
I’m not 100 percent yet, but I feel it’s coming. The past few weeks my condition has been improving day by day. So time is on my side – it’s my best ally.
The Belgian will be without the support of teammate Cadel Evans, who has withdrawn from the Ardennes races with a sinus infection, causing his surprise withdrawal with 65km remaining of Amstel Gold.
Surprisingly, Gilbert was the best of the pre-race favourites in the Netherlands on Sunday, with the Spanish trio of Samuel Sanchez, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez finishing in seventh, 22nd and 24th places respectively. The former is not starting here, although the latter two are.
Peter Sagan rode well to finish third at the weekend, although he won’t ride this race. Instead the Liquigas team is headed by Vincenzo Nibali, who is determined to improve upon his poor position in Amstel Gold, where he trickled in a lowly 104th.
Astana’s Enrico Gasparotto is expected to start Flèche Wallonne but has no history in this race, although his liking of uphill finishes mean that he could yet play a part on the Mur. Jelle Vanendert of Lotto-Belisol rode to a surprise second place in the ‘beer race’, and could once again feature on Wednesday.
La Flèche Wallonne takes place on Wednesday 18th April. Live coverage and highlights will be shown in the UK by Eurosport. For other channels check cyclingfans.com. VeloVoices will also be live-tweeting the race.
Link: Official website