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La Flèche Wallonne Preview: The inevitability of death, taxes, and Valverde

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La Fleche Wallonne 2016 Cycle Road Race Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

If Liege-Bastogne-Liege is known as La Doyenne, then its sister race, La Fleche Wallonne, should be properly known as La Dame Ennuyeuse as it has been as predictable as any race this side of Scheldeprijs. Also acceptable would be La Dame Espagnole as the last six years have all be won Spaniards: Joaquim Rodriguez, Dani Moreno, and Alejandro Valverde x 4. Only the most ascetic of fans would be clamoring for live coverage of the entire race, as it is often only the last three minutes of the race that are interesting. And those last three minutes of the sprint up the Mur de Huy are invariably fun to watch even if it’s more of the brute strength variety of entertainment rather than the intellectual, strategic delights of some of the other classics. (There’s also something to be said for the deluded optimism of holding out hope for the rider that attacks at the bottom of the Mur, like Bob Jungels last year, only to be mercilessly swamped before the line to finish a minute behind.)

I’m of the belief that this race and the Mur de Huy has its place despite the predictability of the entire thing. However, I’m also of the belief that this race needn’t be so predictable as the parcours could lend itself to successful attacks before the final climb up the Mur. There’s that old cycling cliche that it’s the riders and not the course that make a race. I think that could be reasonably true in this case but ask myself like nature vs. nurture, shampoo vs. conditioner, pie vs. cake, and Flanders vs. Roubaix, why not both? With the current course and if enough of the riders and teams decide it is possible to successfully attack earlier than the final climb then it will be possible. The peloton just needs to come to the realization that if the inexorable passage of father time cannot stop Valverde from winning a sprint up the Mur then they stand no chance.

It’s not like ASO doesn’t want the race to be more interesting and therefore more captivating for audiences and advertisers alike. Race organizers have been trying to spice up their races with all types of gimmicks and obstacles lately. For instance there were the plug streets in Gent-Wevelgem, the wind-exposed and echelon producing roads in Schedleprijs, the flaming zombie bear gauntlet of the Volta, and less successfully the H&R Block income tax filing sections of the Tour of the Gila.

You know how every episode of Game of Thrones was more interesting if the Queen of Thorns was involved? Well ASO has also decided to add some old lady into this race to enliven the proceedings, with the first half of the course going over the roads and hills of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, including La Redoute. The race will then do the same three circuits that were included last year, which include the Mur, the Cote d’Ereffe, and the Cote de Cherave, which is crested several kilometers before the finish on the Mur.

And it’s not like ASO hasn’t tried to change the course up before. The only real constant has been the Mur de Huy. Last year they tried making the first 120 kilometers of the race flat with the same three circuits used this year. That change was unsuccessful, leading to the toughening up of the lead in to the circuit this year.

2017 profile, aka the mullet - business in the front and party in the back

2016 included the same last three climbs and had a longer circuit with several other climbs, including the Mur, which was done two times. 2015 was similar to the finish in 2016, but with a flatter first part of the race. 2014 had the finish on the Mur coming after a longer flatish section of about 10 kilometers. Despite the different attempts at a parcours, Valverde was victorious in all four of the previous editions.

La Fleche Wallonne 2015
Nothing wrong with enjoying the fruit of the suffering you inflicted
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Valverde has said that he is impossible to beat if he is out front on the Mur, and as Muhammad Ali said, it ain’t bragging if it’s true, and this is certainly true. Dan Martin has tried and failed to match Valverde going up the Mur. Joaquim Rodriguez tried and failed to beat Valverde up the Mur in 2015. Julian Alaphilippe has gotten used to finishing second behind Valverde on the Mur. Perhaps Alaphilippe has the best chance at matching Valverde mono-a-mono on the Mur, but after comparing the form of Valverde vs. the form of Alaphilippe at Amstel, both need to mature several more years before there is parity in that match up.

So, is there any way that Valverde can be beat? The bookies sure don’t think so as Valverde is an obscene 4/7 favorite, meaning if you bet $70, you’d only win a pitiful $40. But, I think it can, but not necessarily will, be done, if the other riders and teams throw out the ingrained belief that this race can only be won in the last 1.2 kilometers. I think there are several ways that Valverde can be defeated:

1. Teams should bring more cobbled classic-oriented riders, if only as domestiques.

For some reason, Amstel is viewed as a race that suits classic riders like Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews while Fleche is seen as a race for the punchy climbers. While the difference may be the finish on the Mur, there is nothing on the course that would prevent some of the strong classic riders from putting in a strong performance and at least making the race much more selective.

The Cote de Cherave is 1.3 km at 8.15% average:

The Cote d’ Ereffe is 2.2 km at 5.91% average:

The Mur is steep, but only 1.2 km long.

Compare that to the Cauberg, which over 1.2 kilometers is about a 6% average gradient, the Bemelerberg, which is 0.9 km at 5.2% average, and the Geulhemerberg, which is 1 km at 6.2%. The more cobbled-centric riders can put in attacks over some of the climbs and make them stick in the flats and downhills between the climbs and at least be employed to not let Movistar control the race. Even if the cobbled-classic season is over, one more race where they can be used as domestiques to help their climbier teammates shouldn’t derail any recovery. But, alas, looking at the startlist, there are not too many cobbled-studs to be found.

2. Be prepared to lose the race but also to have Valverde lose the race

Teams should treat it like Valverde is wearing yellow at the Tour. Let Movistar do all of the work to reel in the day’s breakaway. If Movistar doesn’t want the break to make it, let them expend all of their riders. If they are unsuccessful, tough luck. If they are successful, there won’t be many teammates left for Valverde to rely on positioning him before the Mur and to cover any potential attacks prior to the Mur. Which leads to the next point,

3. Attack, attack, attack!!!!

Conor’s advice last year to Quickstep to employ the go mental strategy should be employed by all the teams. Astana showed how it could be done in Amstel. Valverde looked like the strongest rider in that race. Astana had Fuglsang continue to put in multiple attacks, with Valverde needing to cover a few. Astana then had Valgren put in multiple attacks, with the third one being the charm, with both Valverde and Sagan either unable or more likely unwilling to shut it down. There is no reason why a go mental strategy cannot be employed in Fleche. UAE have Dan Martin, Rui Costa, and Diego Ulissi, BMC has Dylan Teuns, Damiano Caruso, Alessandro De Marchi, and Simon Gerrans, Bah Meh bring two Izagirres and the greater Nibali, AG2R have Bardet, Latour, and Vuillermoz, Sky have Henao the elder, Kwiatkowski, and Poels, Lotto Soudal have Wellens and Benoot, Astana have Fuglsang, Valgren, and a plethora of other attackers, Quickstep have Alaphilippe, Gilbert, Jungels, and Mas. There is no reason that these teams cannot launch multiple attacks prior to the finish on the Mur. The 2nd passage of the Mur with about 30 kilometers to go, the last passage of the Cote d’ Ereffe with 18 kilometers to go, or the Cote de Cherave with 6 kilometers to go would all make good places to go mental. As has been theorized, a solo attacker likely needs a minute or more at the bottom of the Mur to have a chance. If there are multiple attackers sharing in the work, that margin would likely be lowered.

Moreover, if Valverde is made to cover multiple attacks, he has shown time and time again, with the most recent iteration at Amstel, that if he is not getting help from other riders he is willing to lose the race. The other teams need to get him to the point where he refuses to continue to cover the continuous attacks.

Now back to reality and the inevitability of Valverde. Who’s going to beat him? If the crafty and treacherous Vincenzo Nibali can sneak away in Milano-Sanremo, he may have a shot here, but Nibs is likely saving himself for LBL. Dan Martin has yet to earn himself even a single vds point and even in the best of condition would need some heretofore unknown to him extraordinary luck to be victorious. Julian Alaphilippe has grown some facial hair to show that he is mature and ready to assume the mantle of his generation’s Ardennes dominator, but unfortunately ain’t no one gonna fear this beard, as it’s only a teenage mustache. Alexis Vuillermoz has beaten Valverde on the Mur, but it was the Mur-de-Bretagne in the Tour de France in 2015. Romain Bardet is a sneakily good one day racer but is unlikely to have the power to match Valverde on a short steep climb. Dylan Teuns has not yet found his form from last summer and would surprise at repeating on the podium. Michal Kwiatkowski looks to be getting in line to be the leader for Sky at the Tour as he’s won 2 stage races already this year but hasn’t cracked a top 10 in a one day race. Woet Poels does not look to be in shape yet after his broken collarbone at Paris-Nice. Tim Wellens and/or Tiesj Benoot will almost certainly attack early but if they don’t have collaborators, they are unlikely to succeed. The Danish hegemony is strong with Astana, but Fugls or Valgren are not winning unless the race gets blown apart before the Mur.

Teams are one rider less this year, with only 7 apiece. The course is harder than ever. Valverde also looks stronger than ever. So paraphrasing Karl Marx, I say to you peloton, just as I used to end every term paper as a pretentious and unbearable undergraduate in college, “Riders of the peloton unite! You have nothing to lose but your chainrings!”

La Fleche Wallonne 2016 Cycle Road Race
I’m actually being literal here, peloton. You are likely to lose the chainring trophy to this guy.
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Outside of the patented “Conor Kelly Go Mental Strategy” actually being employed, one can watch this race to predict which of the young riders are going to have a big season. Last year, Dylan Teuns and David Gaudu showed themselves on the Mur, with Gaudu launching an early attack on his elders and ultimately finishing in 9th and Teuns riding onto the podium behind Dan Martin, which was the flash of the promise of a torrid summer for Teuns where he couldn’t enter a race without winning it. In 2016, Woet Poels announced that he was back after a long road of recovery and finished 4th, right before he won LBL. 2015 saw Julian Alaphilippe announce himself as the heir apparent to Valverde with a 2nd place.

So which riders might offer a breakout performance in this race? Guillaume Martin has been tearing up the French circuit, winning the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe and coming in 3rd at the Tour du Finistere. He may finally show himself on the World Tour level. Sam Oomen has had a quiet season so far, but that 11th place at Lombardia last Fall was no fluke. Floris de Tier has Zubeldia’d his way to a 13th at Strade Bianche and a 16th at Amstel. Back in 2016, while riding for Topsport Vlaanderen, he came in 23rd in this race. The Ardennes seem to be the races that would suit him best. Bora have Emanuel Buchmann, Patrick Konrad, and Gregor Muhlberger who could all show themselves provided they aren’t all working for Rafal Majka. Hopefully the only amnesia that remains for Daniel Felipe Martinez is that he rides for Team Ef’d so that he can get a good result on the Mur. For Mitchelton-Scott, either Robert Power or Jack Haig may be able to get a top 10, provided they are not working for old man Albasini. Alexandr Riabushenko would seem suited for this race, but is probably buried behind UAE’s triple threat of failure- Dan Martin, Rui Costa, and Diego Ulissi.

There is also a women’s race that is part of the Women’s World Tour and believe it or not very similar to the men’s race, finishing on the Mur de Huy. To this date, no uteri have fallen out. Also similar to the men’s version, there has been a Valverdification of the women’s race (the van der Breggening?), with Anna van der Breggen having won the last three editions.