If the takehome message of the Amstel Gold Race pre-race analysis was essentially "inside 30km anything goes," the pre-race framing of La Flèche Wallonne -- the Wallonian arrow -- couldn't be more different. Your job as a contender is to get to the Mur de Huy, the 1.4km finishing ascent (9% avg, 26% max) that defines the race, and kick til you drop.
Two things about the Mur: how it shapes the race, and who succeeds there. On the first score, it's not quite fair to say the Mur is the race, but you have to go back to 2003 to find an edition where that was not the case. Arguably the separation on the Cote de Ahin made the 2006 race, but that merely narrowed the field to a final dozen guys who you'd have expected to see fighting it out on the Mur anyway. Otherwise, the last five editions have all resulted in one form or another of a pack sprint up the feared Mur.
Second, and part of the same thing, is who you see there. In 2002 and 2003, the field was a mix of classics guys, including someone like Mario Aerts who violated all sense of order by winning La Flèche while being openly Flemish. Prior to then the field was less specialized, the only real trend being Moreno Argentin's tendency to win the race at will. Since 2003, however, the Mur has played host to more of an early-season battle among some of the biggest climbing stars in the sport. They say the quality of your win is defined by who you beat? Try this out:
2004: Davide Rebellin beats DiLuca, Scarponi, Kessler, Kloden, Vinokourov, VDB and Sammy Sanchez, among others, up the Mur.
2005: Danilo DiLuca beats Kirchen, Rebellin, Freire, Sinkewicz, Evans, Wegmann, Pereiro, Vino, Kessler and Cunego, among others.
2006: Alejandro Valverde outkicks Sanchez, Kroon, Schleck, Sinkewicz, DiLuca, Etxebarria, Kessler, Wegmann, Bettini, Ivanov, Koldo Gil, etc.
2007: Rebellin beats Valverde, DiLuca, Kessler, Ricco, Schleck, Gadret, Gesink, Wegmann, Freire, etc.
2008: Kirchen wins over Evans, Cunego, Gesink, Dekker, Rebellin, Pfannberger, Albasini, J-Rod, etc.
What you have is an emerging consensus in the race that there are a lot of riders who are prepared to wait for the Mur and see who has the legs. Even with Frank Schleck, Robert Gesink and Danilo DiLuca all missing for various reasons, you still have a race where most of the big teams will be content to keep things together for the Mur. Rabobank may change their minds, but Caisse d'Epargne, Silence-Lotto, Serramenti, Katusha, Saxo Bank, Columbia, Lampre, Milram, Euskaltel, and maybe Liquigas will all more or less welcome another big finish.
Steephill.TV has the list of climbs and relevant stats posted on their Flèche-board. The Cote de Ahin, 14km from the end, is a long 2.5km averaging 6%, and a classic is a classic -- ultimately any outcome is possible. But one outcome is far more likely than others. Frankly, while I am glad that most races aren't as strategically predictable as this, I am still thankful that La Flèche is. The all-out War on the Mur is one of the great annual spectacles of Cycling, and I will be rooting against every B-list breakaway Wednesday, no matter how nice a story it would contain. I want my Mur Mash-up!