Step back into history with me for a minute. Think back to the steepest hill you have ever ridden. Imagine ascending it again. Your legs, they churn slowly as you grind your way up out of the saddle. Quads burning just to make it to the top. We have all encountered hills like this, but few of us have ever raced up them, let alone had to sprint to the top.
Yet, this is exactly what riders must do this Wednesday when the ascend the murderously steep Mur de Huy, which has gradients of up to 26% in its middle, not once, or twice, but three times during Flèche Wallonne. The last ascent is the hardest because the race finishes right. At. The. Top. Revisit that memory of your steepest hill. Can you imagine having to sprint up it full bore now? Now you know why this race is a classic.
If you need any proof? Just look at the list of recent winners - Gilbert and Evans won in 2010 and 2011. This is one finale where you will never see an undeserving winner. Want to know more?
La Flèche Wallonne literally means the Walloon Arrow, named after its distinctly shaped profile through the Wallonia region in Belgium. That's the part where they speak French and make baby Phillipe Gilberts. The arrow starts in Charleroi and travels to Huy, where it begins its first ascent of the legendary Mur. After the first ascent, riders will do two circuits of decreasing length, each with a fair number of climbs to navigate. As you've gathered by now, each lap goes over over the Mur at the end of the lap. Phew, bring your climbing legs!
The course weeds out a fair number of riders, but because the finish is so hard, we usually see a group of 50+ riders hitting the bottom of the Mur de Huy together with 1300m to go.
And the Mur? It starts off gentle, enticing a few doomed attacks near the base. But the smart riders refrain, knowing there is 1300m at an average gradient of 9.3% awaiting them. These early attacks, they fizzle when the climb begins a prolonged section in the neighborhood of 11% from 900m-500m to go. And then? 100m at 17%. This is where the dreaded 26% gradient is located, right in the middle of a turn. The words "Huy Huy Huy Huy" taunt the riders, all of whom are going plenty slow enough to read them. The riders who have a chance at the finish all move to the fore here - or, more accurately, every mortal falls behind. But nobody makes their move yet.
The top of the Mur de Huy? It flattens out, if only comparatively. From 400m to go to 100m, the gradient is in the range of 14-15% before flattening out to a tame 6% for the final 100m.
Riders who attack before the final 100m? They are the ones who mis-judge the finish, except for perhaps Emma Pooley and Phillipe Gilbert, who turned on the afterburners from further out in their recent victories. Do you remember 2010, when Contador put in a searing acceleration with 200m to go and looked to have the race won? Until Cadel Evans (victim of the same tactical blunder in years past) started his sprint with 100m to go?
Patience. That is how you win here. For illustration, the 2010 edition.
Who likes this finish? Two types of riders, actually. The pure climbers, especially the snappy ones, always do well here. My pick is Joaquim Rodriguez, who has been second here two years running. And, notably, the two people who beat him are either not in form yet or not racing. But J-Rod, he won't have it easy with riders like Igor Anton, Jelle Vandendert, and Frank Schleck nipping at his heels. Anton has twice been in the top 5 of this race and is due a big one-day win any day now. Plus? Alejandro Valverde has won this race in the past.
La Flèche Wallonne Feminine
Bonus round! The next stop of the World Cup is La Flèche Wallonne Feminine, held on the same day as the men's race. Unlike the men, though, our ladies start in Huy and only complete the final two circuits the men will race on later in the day. Because, with all those hills, that's really enough. If you're counting, that means two times up Huy!
This should come as no surprise to you, but Marianne Vos has won this race before. In 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011. That's quite some streak, really. Other people who do well on the Huy? Easy to guess. Emma Pooley tore up the climb from way far away from the finish in 2010 to win. And Nicole Cooke won in 2003, 2005, and 2006, though she hasn't been on the podium since 2007.
Other hopefuls? Your best bet is to look at the results from the past five years. You see, no real surprises emerge on the Mur - it is too brutal for that. So other than Emma Johansson and Judith Arndt - both multiple time podium finishers - nobody else is likely to win, though we may see some interesting battles for the rest of the top-5 placings.
For your enjoyment, highlights from the 2011 edition of the women's race. Fleche coverage starts at minute 13.
Photo: 2010 Flèche Wallonne, by Bryn Lennon, Copyright Getty Images Sport