Old guard take on the new talent
La Flèche Wallonne is a race that rewards experience. It plays out in more of less the same way every year, with a sprint on the staggeringly steep Muur de Huy deciding every men’s edition for almost the last two decades, and therefore the more times a rider has raced it, the more likely they are to have mastered its secrets and know how to pace themselves.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) knew the race and the climb inside out by his ninth appearance in 2014, at which point he became virtually unbeatable and went on a four-year winning run. His successor, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), had two runner-up finishes as he acclimated to the race, before defeating Valverde in 2018, and he too defended his title the following year.
Given Valverde’s return to form, and the fact that Alaphillipe will ride this year’s edition having skipped the race last season, both these two riders will be among the top favourites for another victory this time out, but they will face competition from less experienced riders who nevertheless look perfectly suited to Flèche Wallonne
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) will make his debut on the back of second-place at Amstel Gold Race and victory at Brabantse Pijl; as will Primož Roglič, who looked in sprightly form at Amstel Gold before a badly-timed puncture, and will lead Jumbo-Visma now Wout van Aert has finished his spring campaign. And then there’s Tadej Pogačar, who finished ninth on just his second appearance last year, and could be a serious contender should UAE Team Emirates decide to back him over defending champion Marc Hirschi.
Whether their form will be enough to make up for their lack of experience will be one of the intriguing factors of the race.
Van der Breggen’s hunt for a magnificent seven
In recent years, no other rider has dominated a single WorldTour race as much as Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) has at Flèche Wallonne. She’s won a remarkable six editions on the trot, a run that stretches back to before many of the other biggest events in women’s cycling existed, and will be hoping to extend that record to seven on Wednesday.
However, there are signs she may struggle to do so. Prior to Amstel Gold, it was reported that the Dutchwoman was suffering with a cold, and her performance on Sunday — when she missed the selections and finished over eight minutes down in 53rd place — suggests that she was indeed under the weather.
If she can’t fully recover in time for Wednesday, SD Worx may opt to back another rider — perhaps Demi Vollering, who came agonisingly close to winning both Amstel Gold Race and Brabantse Pijl, and performed well on the Mur de Huy last year to finish third.
But given that this will be Van der Breggen’s last Flèche Wallonne before retiring, she’ll no doubt be determined to chase one last victory in a race in which she has been so dominant.
Can underperforming contenders ride into form in time?
As things stand, the men who have dominated on the Mur de Huy during recent editions of Flèche Wallonne look as though they may be short of the form needed to again push for victory this time around.
Marc Hirschi, who won on debut last year, has made a slow start to life at new team UAE Team Emirates, and, though he has shown some signs of improvement, remains well short of the form he brought into last year’s race.
Similarly, the man second to him that day, Benoît Cosnefroy (Ag2r Citroën), only started his season during the last week in March, and was well off the pace at Itzulia Basque Country, but did manage to finish eighth at Brabantse Pijl.
Whereas these two riders’ lack of form is only temporary, we may have to start asking whether Astana-Premier Tech’s 36-year-old Jakob Fuglsang’s current struggle to find form is a sign of a more permanent decline. The Dane finished a career-high second-place here just two years ago, but was off the pace at Amstel Gold and hasn’t made the top five of any race this season.
Finally, one eye-catching name on the start list is Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), who returns to racing following a self-imposed 24-day rest from the physical and mental demands of professional cycling. It would be a big ask to expect him to compete for victory, but the mere sight of the champion of 10 years ago back on his bike and racing again will be great to see.
Other contenders for the crown
As predictable as a race that Flèche Wallonne can often seem to be, there’s still a long list of riders who should be considered as potential winners.
If he can maintain his current form, Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) could certainly claim the top prize. The German was the only rider capable of staying with Pidcock and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) at Amstel Gold Race, and has in recent years been steadily improving at Flèche- Wallonne with eighth in 2018 and fifth in 2019.
The likes of Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation), Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) may not have featured quite so prominently at Amstel Gold, but all finished in the chasing group behind, and have the past pedigree to go well on the Mur de Huy.
Should Pidcock have a bad day, Ineos Grenadiers also boast multiple back-up options, with climbers Adam Yates and Tao Geoghegan Hart joining Richard Carapaz and Michał Kwiatkowski, both of whom were so impressive at Amstel Gold.
Outside bets include Ide Schelling (Bora-Hansgrohe), who has been a revelation this past week by finishing fourth at Brabantse Pijl and going out on the attack at Amstel Gold, and 21-year-old Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), who made a name for himself in last year’s edition by surviving far longer than could reasonably be expected having attacked at the start of the race, and impressed at Amstel Gold by doggedly fighting on despite suffering a crash.
And look out also for British teenager Ben Tulett (Alpecin-Fenix), who caught the eye with an attack late on at Amstel Gold, and finished a very impressive 17th place.
Can an attack before the Mur de Huy succeed?
The brutal difficulty of the finishing climb of Mur de Huy has meant that, however many tweaks the organisers make to the route (two new climbs have been added for this year’s men’s edition), attacks made before it are generally doomed to failure.
The women’s race has not been quite as formulaic as the men’s, however, which could encourage some of the bigger names in that race to try their luck with earlier attacks. As recently as 2017, in fact, a breakaway prior to the Mur de Huy was successful, when Van der Breggen went clear with her then-team-mate Lizzie Deignan, and Kasia Niewiadoma.
Having picked up the only Flèche Wallonne podium finish of her career that year, Niewiadoma may want to try something similar this year, although she may be growing increasingly frustrated after her impressive recent attacks at Amstel Gold and Dwars door Vlaanderen both came to nothing.
Should Van der Breggen not be in full health, SD Worx may also mix up their strategy, with 2018 runner-up Ashleigh Moolman Pasio being a good card to play. And given how aggressively Trek-Segafredo tend to ride, and how little success anyone has had going up against SD Worx in a sprint on the Mur de Huy, their star riders like Elisa Longo Borghini and Lizzie Deignan may be forming a plan for how to get away before the final climb.
And then of course there’s Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), who has the power to single-handedly shape how the race unfolds should she decide to attempt an early attack.