La Fleche Wallonne, the second of the three Ardennes Classics, will be held for the 76th time on Wednesday (18).
The 194km race from Charleroi to Huy includes nine climbs, and ends with arguably the most testing ramp of Ardennes Week – the Mur de Huy.
The brutal slope of the Mur, a climb that reaches a gradient of 19 per cent in just 204 metres, is known with little affection among the riders as ‘the Wall’.
La Fleche Walonne is sandwiched between yesterday’s Amstel Gold Race and Sunday’s La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The route of La Fleche Wallonne starts in the Belgian town of Charleroi, and offers a flat and gentle beginning to a testingly hilly race.
The riders will climb the Mur for the first time after just under 71km before embarking on a 92km loop taking in five climbs. Early challenges include the Ped d’Eau after 110km, swiftly followed by Haut-Bois just five-and-a-half kilometres down the road, and the Groynne at 141km. The final 14km of the loop includes three climbs as the riders head back to Huy to scale ‘the Wall’ for a second time.
Riders who reach its summit on the penultimate ascent will embark on the route’s second circuit. The ramps of the Cote d’Amay and the Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet, the second of which lies less than 10km from the final ascent of the Mur, could see the intensity of the race increase as teams with men strong enough to contest victory at the denouement raise the tempo to prevent breakaways.
If the peloton remains together after the Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet, the race will almost certainly be decided on the third and final ascent of the Mur, and any rider strong enough to win on its brutal slope will deserve any plaudits coming his way.
Last year’s race was decided in just that fashion by Philippe Gilbert, who rode away from his rivals to collect the second of three Ardennes triumphs in a remarkable season.
After a low key start to 2012, Gilbert (BMC Racing) showed flashes of his former brilliance at yesterday’s Amstel Gold Race, riding comfortably behind teammate, Greg Avermaet, before leading the peloton up the face of the closing Cauberg in pursuit of the leading quartet on the Cauberg to finish sixth. He will lead the BMC team in the remaining Ardennes Classics.
Another BMC rider expected to seek a second victory at La Fleche Wallonne was Cadel Evans, but the Australian, who won the race in 2010, will not ride contest the remaining Ardennes Classics having withdrawn from the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday with a sinus infection. BMC Racing’s directeur sportif, John Lelangue, said Evans’ absence would not affect the team’s plan for Wallonne or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. “We still have a good field around Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet to make two good Ardennes races,” he said.
“Cadel was coming here with the objective to help them. That was always the plan. We know his main objective is in a few months in July. Therefore he has to make a good Tour of Romandie. It will be a good test in real stage race conditions – with a time trial, prologue and mountain stages.”
Team Sky will field two British young guns: newly crowned world team pursuit champion, Peter Kennaugh, and Welsh neo-pro Luke Rowe. The British team’s eight-man line up also boasts plenty of climbing power in the form of Sergio Henao, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, and Rigoberto Urán. Nordhaug crashed heavily with Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) on the Cauberg at yesterday’s Amstel Gold Race. Thomas Löfkvist finished sixth in the 2009 edition of the race.