Fleche Wallonne preview: Mur matters

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April 21st, ’14.  The second of the three hilly classics around this time of the year, Fleche Wallonne is traditionally regarded as the slightly smaller of the three; but that is not to say that it lacks prestige, for it carries that in spades.  The race has a pretty predictable feel to it – the winning move is virtually always on the final ascent of the infamous Mur de Huy – who will have the legs to make the winning move is far less certain.

April 21st, ’14.  The second of the three hilly classics around this time of the year, Fleche Wallonne is traditionally regarded as the slightly smaller of the three; but that is not to say that it lacks prestige, for it carries that in spades.  Starting in Bastogne before heading northwest towards the town of Huy and the infamous climb of the Mur de Huy, the race has a pretty predictable feel to it – the winning move is virtually always on the final ascent of the Mur – who will have the legs to make the winning move is far less certain however.  Last year it was Daniel Moreno of the Katusha Team who surged away to the win, a bit of a surprise as we were all expecting his teammate Joaquim Rodriguez to be dashing to victory; and Moreno is back to defend his crown.  With the first of the Ardennes races out of the way, our list of potential victors can afford to be slightly more accurate; or so we like to think so anyway.  So . . . . who are the big shots in this year’s Fleche Wallonne?

After running (or riding) away with the win in Amstel Gold, Philippe Gilbert stands head and shoulders above the rest as favourite.  It’s not every day that riders win both the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne, but Gilbert has done it; what’s to stop him doing it again?  His form is positively electric at the moment and his end-of-race power is second to none; as he proved with his piercing attack on the final climb of the Cauberg.  The only thing that could realistically hamper his victory aspirations could be the timing.  Last year Gilbert wore the rainbow jersey and rode it to the front of the field, seemingly in just the right position at just the right time on the Mur de Huy.  The only problem is that it wasn’t just the right time, and rider after rider took it in turns to overtake him.  Lessons from the last couple of years have shown that victory belongs to the wait-er in this race.  Gilbert must not let his brilliant form result in over-excitement and any hasty moves.

Last year saw the rise of Colombia in this race, with Daniel Moreno flanked by two riders of same country but different colours, with Sergio Henao of Team Sky taking second and Carlos Betancur of AG2R La Mondiale taking third.  Betancur is back this year with his AG2R team and his key advantage is that he hails from a nation that seems to just churn out quality climbers over and over again.  He had a disappointing Amstel Gold Race but his season has otherwise been pretty sublime.  Two stage wins and the overall crown in Paris-Nice, one stage win and the overall in the Tour Cycliste International du Haut Var-matin.  This youngster has talent.  The only question is has he expended too much too early this season?

A big question mark hangs over my next rider to watch.  Daniel Martin certainly has the ability to win Fleche Wallonne; he was fourth last year before winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  He has just struggled with form this season so far.  He didn’t finish Amstel Gold, and in races so far this year he has finished no higher than 13th in one stage of the Tour of Catalunya; the race he was defending champion in.  What he has on his side is a truly fantastic team featuring Tom-Jelte Slagter and former Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal.  If Hesjedal and Martin in particular can work together as marvelously as they did in Liege-Bastogne-Liege fireworks could spark from the Garmin-Sharp team.  Only time will tell with Martin and co.

Two very exciting riders to watch are actually brothers on the same team; brothers who have never ridden Fleche Wallonne before.  I give you the Yates boys.  While much talk is made of Team Sky and the Brits on their roster – and rightly so – you may not be so familiar with the British duo of Adam and Simon Yates.  The two of them seemed to come from nowhere last season when they well and truly put on a show in the Tour of Britain.  Orica GreenEDGE recognised hot property and snapped them up.  Simon Yates dutifully showed his gratitude with 12th overall in the Tour of the Basque Country.  Adam Yates so far has taken the young rider classification in the Tour de San Luis and a healthy 7th in stage 5 of the Tour of Catalunya.  Maybe they are not to win this year, but the twins are certainly not to be ruled out in the future.

Lest we forget the blanket Ardennes favourites at this stage.  Alejandro Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski, Bauke Mollema and co proved just why they are favourites for one-day classics at this time of year.  The three of them took top 7 placings in Amstel Gold and the three of them are back for Fleche Wallonne.  This finish might suit the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider slightly more.  Kwiatkowski rode aggressively at the end of Amstel Gold and it nearly paid off for him.  Like his Cannondale rival, Peter Sagan, Kwiatkowski is a fast learner; and he will be extremely exciting to watch on Wednesday when the Mur hones into view.

And finally there comes a team that has been much like Team Sky of recent one-day classics; the nearly team.  Lotto Belisol were the surprise package of Amstel Gold.  They weren’t expected to shine but shine they did, in the form of Jelle Vanendert who produced a wonderful turn of speed in the closing stages to overhaul all but Gilbert and take second place.  Lotto Belisol have three cards to play, the way I see it, in the form of Jelle Vanendert, Clasica San Sebastian winner Tony Gallopin and twice fourth placed finisher in the Tour de France Jurgen van den Broeck.  

Below is our prediction for the top 10 at this year’s Fleche Wallonne:

1st:  Philippe Gilbert (BEL) BMC Racing
2nd:  Daniel Martin (IRE) Garmin-Sharp
3rd:  Bauke Mollema (NED) Belkin Pro Cycling
4th:  Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) Omega Pharma-Quick Step
5th:  Daniel Moreno (SPA) Katusha
6th:  Alejandro Valverde (SPA) Movistar
7th:  Bauke Mollema (NED) Belkin Pro Cycling
8th:  Jelle Vanendert (BEL) Lotto Belisol
9th:  Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) Astana
10th:  Damiano Cunego (ITA) Lampre-Merida

By:  Ed Wright

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