La Flèche Wallonne used to be a much better race. I mean, it was a cobbled classic for goodness' sake, if not quite so severe as the events in which the cobbles have survived. It wasn't mentioned as a place to warm up for Liège either — to win it and Liège in the same year was quite the feat given that to do so was to win in the same weekend. Now however, it occupies the comfortable space of the Wednesday before Liège. Near the top of a peaking curve, but there's space for tuning up before Sunday's big event.
That's before we get to the problem posed by the Mûr de Huy. In 1984, the race director Theo Van Griethuysen, editor of Les Sports, the newspaper which started the race, added the climb to the end of the race. That year, Danish all-rounded Kim Andersen won the race, amazingly didn't test positive afterwards and the event moved on. Walloon Claude Criquielion won the next year, which can't have poisoned the idea of the Mûr in the minds of the organisers, so the race continued with the same finish through 1993, when ASO's ever-lengthening shadow passed over, and 1994, when the Mûr saw its most infamous finish.
Is there anyone who can argue that the Mûr’s presence improves this race? A classic where you are guaranteed a couple of minutes of action at the end but equally guaranteed none for the first ninety-five per cent of the race is no classic, especially when you see how easy it becomes for a certain rider to put his stamp on the race for years on end. The race easiest to compare this to is Scheldeprijs, and even sprinters have gotten bored of that one. We saw on Sunday how taking a final, predictable climb out of a race could improve it, greatly improve the number of possible winners and kick off attacks multiple kilometres earlier.
So, in this season of the long attack can the odds be defeated and can I be made to eat my words? Any team that isn’t Movistar have an interest in avoiding a sprint for the win up the Mûr, so surely there must be at least some attempts at winning the race from further out than one hundred and fifty metres. Tim Wellens made it clear two years ago that an attack on the Côte de Cherave will be too late to make a difference. No, a group must get away much earlier, as one has in most of the classics this season.
This is no Amstel Gold Race however, with thirty-five climbs on which to wear out the chasing teams.
That’s the profile. It’s not nearly as jagged as that of Liège or Amstel — the first two thirds of the race are a mostly flat run-in to the finishing circuit, so any patrolling teams would not have to use nearly as many riders to control the race as opportunists would like. An attack with any chance of succeeding would really have to be gone by the second passage of the Mûr, twenty-nine kilometres out, but the terrain is really not all that hostile for chasing especially if your team has fresh legs, so I really cannot see any situation bar the status quo playing out.
In that situation, there’s only really one favourite, and it’s Alejandro Valverde, something else at which we could easily point the cynicism gun. The Murcian has won this race, seemingly with only increasing levels of ease, for each of the past three years and anyone who thinks he can’t make it four hasn’t been watching him race this year. He’s winning select sprints, he’s winning on big mountains, he’s crushing time-trials and out of all the days he’s raced this year, he’s only been outside of the top twenty in one, a flat bunch sprint in January. I can’t think of one argument against him winning.
Leading the fight for second is Daniel Martin, now the probable leader of Quickstep. Martin came second to Valverde, because of course it was Valverde, in 2014 and third behind the Spaniard and absent team mate Julian Alaphilippe last year. I have seen plenty from Martin this season to suggest that he’ll finish on the podium, but absolutely nothing to suggest that Valverde won’t power out from behind his wheel to beat him.
The Sky pairing of Sergio Henao and Michal Kwiatkowski (nominating leaders isn’t that important for Flèche, team tactics only go so far on a 19% gradient) are the next most likely, with Henao my pick for third. Albasini, Sanchez, Barguil and Vuillermoz are other names to watch out for. Whoever wins, this is the next race I’d like to see revamped. An uphill sprint can only be so much entertainment, no matter what your Spanish mobile provider tells you.