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by Matt de Neef
April 23, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos
The dust has now settled on La Fleche Wallonne, the mid-week WorldTour race that makes up one third of the so-called Ardennes Classics. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won yesterday’s edition, his second consecutive victory in the race and his third overall.
Fleche Wallonne is best known for the Mur de Huy (“the wall of Huy”) a 1.2km-long climb of 10% average gradient which the riders tackle no fewer than three times. Unlike last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race, which ended 1.8km beyond the top of Cauberg climb, Fleche Wallonne finishes at the top of the Mur, making it the only Classic with a summit finish.
Here are seven themes that emerged from the race, for us. We’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Despite great success Alejandro Valverde remains a controversial figure
Alejandro Valverde’s win puts him in rare company — he is one of only five riders to have won Fleche Wallonne three times; the others include Eddy Merckx and Moreno Argentin. Fleche Wallonne aside, Valverde’s palmares makes him one of the most successful riders of the past decade — an overall victory and eight stages at the Vuelta a Espana, two wins at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, two wins at the Criterium du Dauphine, to name just a few of his big wins.
Despite these successes, it seems fair to suggest that many fans find it hard to get excited when Valverde wins. The Spaniard served a two-year ban in 2010 and 2011 after being implicated in the Operación Puerto blood-doping affair of the mid-2000s. While there is no evidence to suggest any wrongdoing on Valverde’s part since his return to racing in 2012, many fans haven’t been willing to forget the Spaniard’s past transgressions.
Is this sort of attitude healthy for a sport that’s been so tarnished by doping? Or does there come a time when a rider’s past should be left in the past?
The Cote de Cherave was a worthwhile addition in the closing stages
In response to criticisms that the Fleche Wallonne finale had become too predictable — i.e. always decided on the Mur — the organisers added a new climb for the 2015 edition: the Cote de Cherave. This 1.5km-long climb peaked 4km from the finish of the race and less than 3km from the start of the Mur, providing a potential springboard for a late attack.
Lotto Soudal’s Tim Wellens took the opportunity to test out the “new” ascent, springing clear of the peloton and racing away solo to the foot of the Mur. At one stage it looked like Wellens might have had enough of an advantage to hold off the surging peloton, but it wasn’t to be. His 14 second lead at the bottom was swiftly eroded as the bigger-name riders jockeyed for position at the front.
So, ultimately, the race came down to the Mur anyway, but it mightn’t next time around. Sure, it’s questionable whether there’s enough road between the Cherave and the Mur for a rider (or riders) to build a defendable lead for the final climb, but that doesn’t mean riders won’t try (as we saw yesterday). Even if it does come down to the Mur, the Cote de Cherave at least adds a small element of unpredictability in the finale which, after all, was what the organisers wanted.
The final climb up the Mur wasn’t explosive as it might have been
While it was the Mur that decided yesterday’s race, the final climb wasn’t the attack-laden slugfest that we might have been expecting. Apart from a brief salvo from Esteban Chavez (Orica-GreenEdge) right at the bottom of the climb, there were no attacks at all. Instead it was the high tempo being set by the likes of Valverde that determined who’d be in a position to sprint for the win.
This certainly worked in Valverde’s favour. The Spaniard worked his way to the front on the steepest part of the climb before launching with a little more than 100m to go.
Was everyone watching Valverde and hoping they could roll him in the sprint? Or was the gradient of the climb and the accumulated fatigue just too significant to attempt a late move?
Cannondale-Garmin is having a season to forget
There’s still plenty of racing left in 2015, a fact Cannondale-Garmin will be most grateful for. Nearly four months into the team’s first season racing as Cannondale-Garmin — after Cannondale and Garmin-Sharp merged at the end of 2014 — the squad is yet to register a WorldTour victory. In fact, the closest they’ve got at the WorldTour level is two third places: one to Dan Martin on stage 3 of the Volta a Catalunya, and one to Tom Danielson on stage 5 at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
As a result Cannondale-Garmin is now dead last on the UCI WorldTour team rankings with just 25 points. Etixx-Quick-Step currently leads the table with 699 points (28 times as many as Cannondale-Garmin) with Sky second on 643 and Katusha third on 585.
Sure, Cannondale-Garmin has won a couple of races — a stage of the UCI 2.HC Criterium Internationale and the overall at the UCI 2.1 Circuit Cycliste Sarthe — but both Cannondale and Garmin, and the team’s other sponsors, will be hoping there’s greater success around the corner.
Dan Martin, meanwhile, will be feeling he’s due for some good luck. He crashed heavily with about 85km to go in yesterday’s race, withdrawing a short time later. His last three results at Fleche Wallonne were sixth, fourth and second last year, and he would have been hoping for another good result.
Cycling can be a brutal sport sometimes
And speaking of crashes, yesterday’s race had plenty of them. Dan Martin was one of the big-name riders caught up, so too was 2011 winner Philippe Gilbert who took a whole heap of skin off when he crashed with about 50km to go. Gilbert rode on for a few moments, with more bare flesh on show than he might have liked, before calling it a day.
Chris Froome (Sky), who was at the race more for reconnaissance of stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France than anything else (see below), also hit the deck with 12km left to race. He was the only one of the big-name crash victims who made it to the finish, albeit 12 minutes down.
But without a doubt the most harrowing crash of the day was that of Alexey Tsatevich (Katusha) who touched down some 30km from the finish. The Russian spent several minutes rolling around on the ground in agony, his distress clearly visible and audible through the TV coverage. Thankfully he was seen getting up and walking over to the team car a few minutes later.
Of course, crashes in professional bike racing aren’t anything special — they literally happen every day — but yesterday’s seemingly constant crashes were a reminder of just how tough professional cyclists are. Hurtling down narrow roads at high speed in close proximity to one another (and parked cars!) while wearing virtually zero crash protection? It’s their job, of course, but it’s still impressive and more than a little crazy.
It was encouraging to see (brief) vision of the women’s race finish during the men’s race
It might only have been a 30-second clip of Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) cresting the Mur, and it might have been delayed by roughly half an hour, but it was still good to see the women’s Fleche Wallonne World Cup race given a mention during the men’s race (on the world feed shown by SBS TV here in Australia, at least).
There was significant backlash on social media during the Tour of Flanders when the finish of the women’s race wasn’t shown during the men’s race (little was happening in the latter at the time) so this seems like a (small) step in the right direction.
Stay posted to CyclingTips for more on this subject in the coming weeks. And if you’re interested in how the women’s race played out, you can read a race report at our sister site, Ella CyclingTips.
Stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France could be like stage 2 last year
After two stages in the Netherlands, stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France will start in Antwerp and finish atop the Mur de Huy. It’s unclear at this stage whether the stage will tackle the climb multiple times or just the once, but either way it will be an exciting finish to watch.
Three of the big name Tour de France contenders were at Fleche Wallonne yesterday — Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali — but none of them featured near the top of the results sheet. You would expect things to be a little different come July 6.
On stage 2 of last year’s Tour de France eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali signalled his imposing form by winning the day from an attack on the day’s short, steep final climb. Could we see a similar move from the GC contenders on stage of this year’s Tour?
Conventional wisdom suggests its a tough ask to take the yellow jersey in the first week of the Tour de France and defend it all the way to Paris, but Nibali more or less did that last year (he briefly dropped to second on stage 9 then took it back the following day before holding it all the way to the end. The winner of stage 3 of this year’s Tour should move into yellow after the stage. Could it be one of the GC contenders trying to take control of the race very early on?
So, what have we missed? What did you take from the 2015 men’s Fleche Wallonne? Comments welcome below.