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Plot Twists on the Mur de Huy

Sometimes it can be hard to get excited about La Flèche Wallonne, even with its idyllic scenery in the Belgian Ardennes, because the race has become so formulaic. Last year, Ryder Hesjedal and Lars Peter Nordhaug tried to sneak away with 7.5km to go and briefly added the illusion of chance to the race, but things were destined to come back together on the Mur de Huy. In other years, there have been even fewer doomed breakaways. But occasionally, the Mur itself - the very factor which provokes such formulaic racing - provides a few plot twists of its own.

Carlos Betancur attacks with 600m to go.
Carlos Betancur attacks with 600m to go.
Fotoreporter Sirotti

Common knowledge dictates a rider not start his sprint on the Mur before the 150m mark. If you jump before then, on the steeper gradients, you are likely to implode and watch helplessly as riders who will eventually end up on the podium surge around you in the last 50 meters. Igor Anton and Alberto Contador learned this the hard way in 2010, letting loose what looked like an unmatchable acceleration on steeper slopes of the climb only to watch helplessly as Cadel Evans came storming by in the final 100 meters.

Occasionally, a rider is so strong they re-write the script, as when Philippe Gilbert attacked 300m from the line in 2011 and Joaquim Rodríguez did the same in 2012, but this is as far as deviation from the normal state of affairs as things get. To some, this is a recipe for boredom, but I find it enthralling to watch the progression before the Mur, the breakaways by riders in the final 50km who stand no chance on the final climb, and the inevitable mistakes made as riders attack too early despite having seen footage of riders doing the same and failing year after year.

This year, however, we saw a plot twist of a different sort.

The racing followed the standard formula of early and late breaks all coming back into the fold by 10km to go as teams of favorites whipped up the pace like the final kilometers of a sprint finish. As the climb began, Carlos Betancur of AG2R lept out of the pack as if shot out of a rocket, 600 long meters from the finish. We see this move almost every year - a rider leaps out to crush the first portion of the climb, if not in hopes of victory then merely to gain television exposure for his team and sponsors. But these moves are the worst, if you want to win the race.

But this year was different. Maybe it was the calibre of rider - Betancur is a superb climber and has won the Giro dell'Emilia in the past, clearly no stranger to punchy uphill finishes - but this only gets one so far. Unlike when Anton and Contador tried to slip away early in 2010, only to be chased by Vincenzo Nibali with Cadel Evans and Joaquim Rodríguez in his wake, the favorites dithered behind, spread across the road and looking at each other deciding whom would chase. Suddenly Betancur had a full ten seconds lead and was almost out of sight as the steepest portion of the climb twisted through the streets of Huy.

Eventually, Philippe Gilbert took control of the chase, stringing things out and, notably, putting Peter Sagan into difficulty, the young Slovak clearly on the last edges of the form that saw him finish first or second in all the one-day races he started until Amstel Gold. The chase was almost left too late, Betancur's gap almost too big to close down. Gilbert's effort brought the favorites back into contention, but at the cost of his own chances for a win. He would slide further and further backwards in the final 200 meters, eventually finishing 15th.

Once Gilbert's effort faded, Daniel Moreno started to sprint, a mere 150 meters from the finish, following the standard script for winning. Ahead, Betancur faded, seemingly trackstanding on the hill, allowing Moreno and Sergio Henao to pass easily and almost yielding the final podium place to Dan Martin. But even though Betancur's effort fell 100 meters short, it was a reminder of what role chance plays in racing. Something as pre-scripted as the Mur de Huy can still fall apart if riders look at each other.