The Ardennes Classics season continues with La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday (April 17).
Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) proved an unlikely winner at the Amstel Gold Race, launching a long-range attack, first to break free from the peloton to bridge across to the lead group, before jumping again seven kilometres out to solo to the finish at the top of the Cauberg.
However, La Fleche Wallonne, which is followed by the final race in a trilogy of hilly one-day Classics, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, on Sunday, rarely provides such a surprise – or ambitious – winner.
Twelve climbs pepper the 205km route of the second Ardennes Classic, La Fleche Wallonne, but it is invariably only on the final climb, the Mur du Huy, that the winner shows his hand.
The Mur is, in fact, climbed three times, with the first ascent after 108km and the second with 173.5km on the board.
The race has followed a familiar format since the finish was moved to the top of the Mur some 30 years ago, with a early breakaway going up the road and the opening 11 climbs, which are largely packed into the second half of the route, serving to reduce the size peloton ahead of the final climb.
With the breakaway invariably reeled in ahead of the final climb, the finish becomes a 1,300m drag race up the Mur du Huy. Still, it’s some race, with the Mur averaging 9.3 per cent and topping out north of 25 per cent with 500m to the line.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha): The Amstel Gold race and the Mur du Huy were together designed for a rider in the mould of Rodriguez, whose legs hold the power key to the short, steep climbs of the Ardennes. After second place finishes behind Cadel Evans and Philippe Gilbert in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Rodriguez finally broke his duck with victory in 2012 – but the Spaniard crashed heavily at Amstel Gold and a thigh injury could take the kick out of his legs.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): Gilbert swept aside all in front of him en-route to winning the Ardennes triple in 2011 but, World Championship victory aside, the Belgian has struggled to rediscover that form. The Wallonia native has shown some signs of the old Gilbert, however, finishing second at Brabantse Pijl before attacking on the Cauberg at Amstel Gold, only to finish fifth after being swamped on the run-in to the finish.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): Another rider who, like Gilbert, knows what it takes to win on the Mur du Huy, Valverde won the 2006 edition of La Fleche Wallonne and showed he has the form to compete at the sharp end of this year’s edition with a second place finish at the Amstel Gold Race.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling): The Slovak sensation went into the Amstel Gold Race as overwhelming favourite but suffered cramps on the final climb to finish a disappointing 36th. That prompted the Cannondale management team to include Sagan in the squad’s Fleche Wallonne line-up, when he was initially due to fly home, but whether the debutant has the form or the punch to tame the Mur’s super-steep gradient is to be seen.
Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp): Martin is in the form of his life after winning the Volta a Catalunya last month and, while a crash ruled him out of contention at Amstel Gold on Sunday, a sixth place finish at the 2012 La Fleche Wallonne, backed up by fifth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, showed the Irishman has what it takes to succeed in the Ardennes.
Wednesday April 17 – 14:00-16:15 – LIVE race coverage on British Eurosport HD