Once more from vacationland... this time a suburban Portland Holiday Inn pool area. Now that all the sane people have checked out, the wifi is very zippy!
La Flèche Wallonne is that rarest of beings in cycling: a totally predictable race here the peloton stays together until the last five minutes, and we love it anyway. The star of the parcours is the Mur de Huy, a 1.3km ascent hitting as much as 23 percent inclines (average is over 9%) en route to the finish line. The race passes the Mur three times, once as a warmup, once as a bell lap and finally as the race-ender. What happens in between rarely seems to matter, except for the usual points about who expended more effort than whom. Well, it matters to the spectators, who get to take in some of Wallonia's lovellier sites in castles and countryside, though I don't see Namur on the road book this year. Le sigh.
Usually nothing of consequence, but this year... maybe. ASO, the Tour de France owners who also put on this race and Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège, often tinker but rarely do anything to break up the peloton before Huy. Now they've included two climbs between the second and third Mur passages, including the standard Côte d'Ereffe at km 189 (16km from the finish), and the brand-new Côte de Cherave at km 200, just five km from the finish. The latter is nothing to sneeze at, a 1.3km climb (same as the Mur) at 8.1% and a max of 13%. The peloton won't be shattered by this, in all likelihood, but the pace will be screaming high, and a number of lesser climbers should disappear. While some news outlets wonder if the pack will split entirely here, a safer bet is that it will at least be much reduced. Favorites will remain favorites, but whether they have any help is another matter.
Apart from the Côte de Cherave's impact, the assault on the Mur is fascinating. Usually the guy who goes first is the biggest loser, because the climb is long and difficult enough to insist on some patience. Watch for the action as well as the reaction. Having threatening teammates is a huge key. If Nairo Quintana goes early, Alejandro Valverde's rivals will have no choice but to pick up the pace, rather than wait for when they prefer to launch. There are several teams thinking the same thing, however. It may be a predictable ending, but what we can predict is a fascinating chess match over a 1.3km course packed solid with spectators and wicked ramps. Great cycling.
Whom to Watch
I May have to supplement this when my battery comes back. Quick list is Kwiatkowski, Valverde, Gilbert, J-Rod, Dan Martin and Sergio Henao. Numerous potential interlopers. More in a bit.
Pick to Win
I'm going with Kwiatkowski. This is a chess match, and the world champ is a smart rider.