26th Flèche Wallonne Féminine, 127.3km
87th Flèche Wallonne, 194.3km
Defending champions: Marta Cavalli, Dylan Teuns
Flèche Wallonne might not have monument status, and the grotty route around the Walloon hills might not engender as much enthusiasm as the bergs of Flanders.
But the mid-week classic has one thing no other race does: the Mur de Huy.
The iconic finishing wall featured in the men’s and women’s editions of the “Walloon Arrow” is one of the steepest and most explosive finales in all of professional cycling.
“The Mur de Huy doesn’t lie. It is the ultimate suffer festival and it is important to know your body perfectly,” said SD Worx sport director Anna van der Breggen and seven-time winner of Flèche Wallonne Féminine.
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“It’s a combination of feeling your body very well and pacing the final climb perfectly so you don’t collapse,” she said. “You are completely acidified and you know you have to attack to win. That’s what makes it so tough to win Flèche Wallonne.”
The cobble-eaters are hitting the beach. The peloton’s puncheurs have taken over, and this mid-week morsel sets things up nicely going into Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Up first are the technical, fast roads of the Walloon, and the intractable finish up the “wall of Huy.”
But some are wondering if Tadej Pogačar will tear up the script, and try to attack before the Mur de Huy.
Could he do it?
“Historically, it’s difficult to anticipate,” said Ineos Grenadiers sport director Steve Cummings. “Some wind is forecast, and that can be a factor. I don’t think it will be a decisive one, yet we will have to watch out. All in all, I think the opportunities to anticipate are limited. Anything is possible [with Pogačar], but I don’t think it will happen.”
Pogačar’s been ripping up the pages of the WorldTour playbook since he hit the scene, so don’t count it out.
The Mur decides it all
Despite the rugged profile, and endless efforts by race organizers to scramble the script, the race inevitably comes down to the final stampede up the Mur.
Both the 127.3km Flèche Wallonne Feminine and the 194.3km men’s race tackle the Mur three times.
The short but steep climb is the finishing line of the men’s race since 1984, and since 1998 for the women’s. Will the outcome change this weekend?
Not likely. Super teams like SD Worx and UAE Team Emirates will be keeping a tight leash on both races to try to set up their favorites.
“Many squads will try to control the race and bring their riders in a good position at the bottom of the Mur de Huy, where everything will be decided,” Soudal Quick-Step sports director Geert Van Bondt. “We believe in our chances and hope to do a good race.”
The Mur isn’t that long, at 1,300m with an average grade of 9.3 percent. Some sectors hit out at 17 percent, with one biting switchback at 26 percent.
It’s no Alpe d’Huez, but it packs a mean punch.
Timing is everything on the Mur. Go too soon, and attackers are typically swarmed. Wait too long, and a late-moving rider runs out of asphalt.
“Nowadays, Flèche Wallonne has become quite the atypical race, a kind of ‘waiting game’ until the race explodes on the Mur,” said Lotto Dstny’s Andreas Kron, who makes his debut this week. “This is contrary to the trend where the races are opened quite early. The Flèche is all about waiting, waiting, waiting.”
Riders can tackle the Mur for an entire career before finally learning the sweet spot. Kron is hoping for beginner’s luck.
“In the past years, several riders have tried to avoid the classical scenario but no one has succeeded. Maybe Wednesday is the day, we will see, but I think we’re in for the same final,” Kron said.
“First and foremost, you have to be in good position to start the final climb, then get your timing just right and hope for strong legs and explosivity.”
Who can master the Mur?
SD Worx is expected to continue to throttle the field, with Demi Vollering hoping to unravel the puzzle of the Mur to finally finish first.
All eyes will be on Tadej Pogačar in the men’s race. The Slovenian slayer has been on a tear all spring, winning at a whim in just about every race he starts.
The Mur presents a different kind of challenge, and Pogačar will need to time his attack just right. Heavy traffic and positioning is key going into the final charge, but if Pogačar breaks clear, it will be hard for anyone to stay on his wheel.
“He launched his attack earlier than expected at Amstel Gold Race, but it’s alright,” said Tomas Gil, sports director for UAE Team Emirates. “Tadej is unpredictable and playful. If he attacks, it means he is feeling well.
“We come in high spirits and we know we are the main favorites,” Gil said. “Of course, the final kilometers will be more chill if Tadej is already solo and with a fair advantage over his chasers. But it’s difficult to anticipate, and we need to manage his efforts because there is still a long season ahead of us.”
Behind him, the race could be for second. Other favorites include Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), Enric Mas (Movistar), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), and Benoit Cosnefroy (Ag2r Citroën).
Defending champion Dylan Teuns (Israel Premier Tech) won’t start due to illness, and the race marks the comeback of Lizzie Deignan (Trek Segafredo) in her first race since 2021 from maternity leave.
Others missing include three-time winner Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) and five-time winner Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma).
Favorites in the women’s field include returning champion Marta Cavalli (FJD Suez), Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-Sram), Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek Segafredo), and Demi Vollering (SD Worx), who’s won or finished second in every race she’s started this spring except Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in her season when she was 17th.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), who remains winless so far in 2023, returns for her final shot at one of the few major races she’s never won.
U.S. riders have done well over the years. Evelyn Stevens won in 2012 and was second in 2016. Megan Guarnier finished third on three occasions.
Krista Doebel-Hickok, eighth last year, will lead EF Education-TIBCO-SVB, with Veronica Ewers making her debut on the wall. Kristin Faulkner starts for Jayco-AlUla.
Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) will be looking to the Mur to bounce back from a disappointing crash at Amstel Gold Race, with Ben Healy and Esteban Chaves also lining up.
“The Ardennes has always been a happy hunting ground for this team, with Michael Woods, Dan Martin… or Neilson Powless, who was up there in Liège already last year,” said EF sport director Tom Southam. “We have a handful of riders who are very capable of shining here, like Neilson himself or Esteban Chaves, and then there is Ben Healy, who is in the form of his life and stepping above what people thought.”
Other Americans include Magnus Sheffield (Ineos Grenadiers), Larry Warbasse (Ag2r Citroën), and Lawson Craddock (Jayco-AlUla).
🏹🇧🇪 @FlecheWallonne for our Blues on Wednesday ✊Ⓜ️
— Movistar Team (@Movistar_Team) April 18, 2023