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La Fleche Wallonne is the fourth round of the 2014 UCI Women’s World Cup and the 17th edition of the race was contested in Belgium yesterday. The 127km race was held on the same day as the men’s race and featured two laps of a circuit that finished atop the infamous Mur de Huy. Australian Specialized-Lululemon rider Tiff Cromwell wrote the following piece, giving us her perspective on the action from within the race.
The Mur de Huy
When people think of La Fleche Wallonne they immediately associate it with a little climb called the ‘Mur de Huy’. It is a climb, or should I say wall, that has been made famous by this race.
At 1.3km in length with an average gradient of 9.3% it features sections of around 19% but can be as steep as 26% on the corners. The hairpin bends snake past seven small chapels as the road climbs up from the centre of Huy.
It is simply brutal — there is no hiding on this climb and the finish line is at the top. The strongest rider wins. The race features a number of other classified climbs but these just merely soften the legs. It is the Mur that does the damage and where the race is generally won.
La Fleche Wallonne is one of those few ‘special’ races where we have the opportunity to race the same day as the pro men on similar parcours with the same finish. It holds a lot of prestige both for men and women and is the only of the three Ardennes Classics that has a women’s edition.
I have had some strong rides at Fleche Wallonne in the past, with my best result being a ninth last year after helping my teammate on the lower parts of the climb. What I love the most about this race is the amazing crowds lining the road the entire way up the Mur. You may be suffering like crazy but the atmosphere just helps push you that little bit harder to reach the finish line.
My preparations for this race weren’t as good as I would’ve liked. I came off of a strong, hard and hectic Energiewacht Tour in Holland with a week at home to recover and prepare for Fleche. It was more about rest and fine-tuning while getting into the mountains to turn the climbing legs on again after a week of flat racing. I was pretty motivated for the race as it suits me better than Dutch racing and I’m always excited for big races.
I managed to pick up a small head cold after Energiewacht so I really had to be careful about my training and focus on recovering and getting back to full health ahead of the race. This meant no intensity. I managed it well and almost got on top of things but wasn’t super confident about how I would fare on race day.
Coming into the race as a team, we were motivated and feeling confident. We had 2012 race winner Evelyn Stevens along with some fresh legs from North America to add to our climbing strength.
The plan was to set it up for Evie as she’s our strongest climber and the race suits her. We wanted to race more conservatively than in past races and focus on the back end of the race. Our early workers Ally Stacher and Tayler Wiles were to cover any moves in the first lap and do as much as they could while they were still there.
Karol-Ann Canuel and I were to start playing in the second lap, looking for opportunities, with Trixi Worrack looking after Evie and keeping her protected. If the four of us were still in the front coming into the Mur the final time, the plan was to attack from the bottom to disrupt any organisation by other teams. This would allow Evie to wait as late as possible to make her final move and hopefully take the win.
How the race unfolded
The race began in beautiful spring conditions on top of the Mur. There is always a nice atmosphere at the start — despite not being in Flanders any more there are still plenty of crazy Belgian cycling fans ready to cheer us on and build their autograph collection, even if they have no idea who we actually are.
With five-time Fleche winner Marianne Vos back in the peloton after an extended break after the cyclocross season, and 2010 winner Emma Pooley also making a comeback after some time away from racing, there was a lot of pre-race talk on how they could influence the race. Having riders of their calibre just makes the racing more interesting with numerous riders to watch out for.
In the past, the opening lap hasn’t provided a huge amount of excitement as many teams wait until the first time over the Mur to really light things up. In the beginning of Wednesday’s race it was looking like it would unfold the same way. We rolled out at a good pace over the first couple of climbs with the peloton staying together. The only action came from a Vienne Futuroscope rider who spent a short time off the front solo.
This all changed over the top of the Cote de Bellaire at 38.5km into the race. Rabobank suddenly amassed at the front and I knew something was about to go down. I would say on paper Rabobank had the strongest squad in the race so they clearly wanted to use their strength throughout the race and put pressure on other teams.
Over the top of the climb it was a fast descent into the town of Ardenne with tight and technical turns through the village before coming on to a big open road on the approach to the tough Cote de Bohisseau.
Rabobank drove it on the front between the climbs and caused serious carnage behind with splits opening everywhere and catching a lot of the main players off guard. It was a surprise move that early into the race, but looking back it a very smart move.
They are all good bike handlers and there are a number of strong climbers in the peloton who Rabo knew aren’t as comfortable on the descents. It was a perfect opportunity to put pressure on their major threats to force them to use extra energy to chase if they were caught by surprise or couldn’t hold position on the descent.
We found ourselves in both a good and not so good position. I worked out pretty early what Rabo was trying to do and managed to slip on to their train on the descent with the help of Ally. But then we had Evie who was caught out, leaving Trixi, Tayler and Karol-Ann to chase hard to try and get her back on.
Rabobank kept the pace high up the climb and significantly reduced the front of the race. I came into the climb in perfect position — third wheel and going with the pace at the front. The climb hit a brief plateau half way up and then kicked again as Vos attacked and it was here that my legs decided to go on vacation.
I hadn’t experienced such a feeling before. My left leg went completely dead, almost cramping and was so painful I could barely pedal let alone put any power out. I went from the front of the lead group to the back, realising as I did that we didn’t have any riders in there. Bad news. Luckily, as I was going backwards, Evie flew past me at a rate of knots and was able to get back to the front.
The next chase group with Trixi and Karol-Ann wasn’t too far back and they were able to make it back to the front group as I continued to go backwards all the way to the final group ahead of the cars, just making sure I said g’day to everyone. I even found myself in the follow cars for a short period before being able to get myself back into the last group that passed me. Rabobank’s damage left a group of 35-40 riders still in contention at the front including five of their six riders. We had three riders in the front.
The group I was with continued to chase as we were holding a gap of 30-40 seconds from the front and even caught back to the cars at the base of the first ascent of the Mur. But over the top it was game over. I was tempted to pull out at the feed zone as although my leg had recovered I wasn’t feeling great. But I decided to enjoy the nice weather and continue. It turned into a lovely training ride around the Ardennes but sadly that’s not what you come to bike races to do.
Up in the front however, it was a hard-fought battle. In the final 40km there were numerous attacks with Vos, playing the domestique role for her teammates, working hard to bring back the attacks.
A bold and late solo attack by Linda Villumsen (Wiggle-Honda) in the final 10km gained her a maximum advantage of 42 seconds entering the bottom of the Mur for the final time. It wasn’t enough of an advantage to hold on for the win though.
Metre by metre on the slopes of the Mur, what was left of the front group whittled down until it was a battle between Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans), Evie, and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Rabobank) matching each other pedal stroke by pedal stroke.
They caught Villumsen with 250m to go but 250m is such a long way on the Mur. Evie was the first to make her move, going early with the hope of outclimbing the other two to the finish, but they were straight on to her wheel. Next to go was Lizzie with 150m remaining and then Pauline came around. Lizzie and Pauline matched each other but finally Pauline found an extra gear in the final 50m to crack Lizzie and take her biggest win to date.
Lizzie held on for a very strong second place and extended her lead in the World Cup series while Evie was passed in the final metres by Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products) who rounded out the podium.
I eventually finished the race with my group down the back, grovelling one more time up the Mur. Despite having far from the best day on the bike I was able to take in and really enjoy the atmosphere of the climb — it’s pretty special and something you just need to experience.
I can’t hide the fact that I was pretty disappointed with my own personal race not being able to help my team more. Its races like these that you just need to put behind you and move on to the next one and not let it get to you too much. It’s bike racing — you have your good days and your bad days and unfortunately it’s not always rainbows and sunshine.
The biggest lesson our team learnt today was the importance of good positioning and not getting caught off guard. You just never know when that important split is going to go. Aside from that we gave it our all, the team rode well together and Evie put in a gallant effort to try and finish off the job.
As for the race it panned out more or less as we expected. Sure, the early aggression and split was a surprise but we knew the race would be won in the final 100m of the Mur. Those who go too early ultimately pay for it while those who wait are rewarded.
For me I will now go home for a week and a half for some much needed R&R. The first goal is to get on top of my health and then focus on the Women’s Tour of Britain, my next race with the team, starting May 7. It is sure to be a fantastic event and great for women’s cycling.
While I’m back at home I will also be taking part in a charity ride from St Tropez to Monaco where we’re raising money for the Princesse Charlene of Monaco Foundation. It’s a foundation supporting the next generation of young athletes who may not have the means to realise their sporting potential. You can donate and support me on this ride here, if you like.
Thanks for reading!
Check out Chloe Hosking’s report from the first race of the World Cup, the Ronde van Drenthe here. Check out Tiffany Cromwell’s report from round two of the World Cup, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda here. And click here to read Gracie Elvin’s report from round three of the World Cup, the Tour of Flanders.