It's shorter, has fewer climbs, and takes place in the middle of the week when riders are licking their wounds from Amstel and screwing up their courage for the April finale in Liege. But by the grace of one 1.3km monster of a hill, La Fleche Wallonne is rendered a Classic. Granted, it takes three circuits over that hill, affectionately known as the Mur de Huy (wall of Huy), but it's because of that hill that La Fleche's honor roll of victors is packed with Tour winners (Lance, Hinault, Fignon, Merckx, Zoetemelk, Kubler, Coppi), World Champions (Astarloa, Argentin, Fondriest, Criquelion, Moser, Saronni) and other distinguished Classics champions (DiLuca, Rebellin, Casagrande, Bartoli, Jalabert, De Vlaeminck, Van Looy). It's downright hostile to one-hit wonders. In other words, it's a Classic.
A Word About Courses
There are three kinds of course maps suggested by the names of the great classics: the straight arrow, the out-and-back, and the circular tour. "La fleche" means the arrow, as does "pijl" in Dutch, so count La Fleche Wallonne, the Brabantse Pijl, and Dwars door Vlaanderen (straight across Flanders) as the straight arrows; Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne as the out-and-backs; and the Tour of Flanders in the latter category. The straight arrow category could be expanded to include the point-to-point races like Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem, if you like.
Unfortunately, a lot of these names are utterly mocked by the modern courses. As cyclists grew in strength, promoters had to find ways to keep the races interesting, i.e. more difficult, and have tortured the original course routes endlessly in search of more climbs. At this point you'd have a hard time distinguishing the map of a Ronde from a Pijl. The route of the "Ronde van Vlaanderen" is about as round as my Mavic rims from 1985, while those arrows are all about as straight as Hincapie's steerer tube. My favorite is Dwars Door Vlaanderen, which squeezes 220 km from a route between two cities about 20 km from each other.
Back to La Fleche...
But there's a certain historical charm to the name "La Fleche Wallonne," not unlike the the idea that there's original fir somewhere under the layers of paint on my house's windowframes. The first route went from Tournai to Liege, which on a map does sorta look like an arrow across Wallonia. Nowadays, it's a short arrow -- more of a bolt really -- from Charleroi to Huy, with a couple big loops hanging from the point. Each of those loops ends on the Mur, including the larger final circuit which softens up the field with four other classics Ardennes cotes before the finishing climb. Ultimately, the course doesn't shed too many riders, but with an average of 12% and peak of 19% in the closing gradient, it takes a serious, serious climber to actually win on the Mur.
The race has been around a while, formerly run on the same weekend as Liege (and conveniently finishing there) before being moved to its more palatable mid-week slot. It also has featured a women's pro circuit, a monument in womens' cycling, run on the same day since 1998.
Previews abound today, and after the last fortnight journalists and riders alike would be remiss in not keeping a very close eye on the CSC boys. But CSC's wins at Roubaix and Amstel consisted of strong riders ambling off the front of a tired field and soloing home. La Fleche isn't a good place for this strategy, with no punishing cobbles and far fewer climbs (respectively) to soften things up. The safer bet is a select group of climbers sprinting up the Mur. But hey, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on T-Mobile.
About those resources:
- Previews are at CyclingNews, or hear from Professor Wilcockson, or get the straight dope, Italian style, at BiciRace. N.b., Italians have scored 16 wins here, second only to the hosts. Pez, as usual, trots out its favorite forgotten ex-pro to explain the Muur.
- ASO is in charge, and here's your generic race site.
- Who's riding? Look no further than the coolest website in christendom for the answer.
- Last, but hardly least... Cycling.TV will be live!! As will Podium Cafe, in one form or another.