It’s time to rename the Mur de Huy the ‘Mur de Van der Breggen’
The last time La Flèche Wallonne Féminine was won by someone not named Anna van der Breggen was in 2014, when Pauline Ferrand-Prevot took the win. Seven editions in a row it has been Van der Breggen victorious at the top of the Mur de Huy. “It’s mostly about the Mur in the end but the race was hard from the beginning,” Van der Breggen said after claiming yet another title on Wednesday.
Prior to Van der Breggen’s string of dominance, the race was won five times by Marianne Vos, although not consecutively as Van der Breggen has done. Emma Pooley in 2010 and Evelyn Stevens in 2012 snuck in to break up Vos’ winning streak that started in 2007.
In the past seven years, Van der Breggen’s biggest winning margin came in 2017 when she beat Lizzie Deignan by 16 seconds. The closest she has ever come to being dethroned was in 2019 when Annemiek van Vleuten got to within one second.
Of the seven riders Van der Breggen has bested on the Mur de Huy only Van Vleuten has been second twice. Throughout the other five years of Van der Breggen’s reign, five different riders went toe-to-toe with her on the iconic climb and failed to beat her.
Why is it that Van der Breggen has won Flèche Wallonne seven years in a row? Each time she raised her arms she looked as if she had just been out for a coffee ride and jokingly went for a town line sprint.
First of all, it goes without saying that Van der Breggen has oodles of talent. In 2020 she was the winningest rider in the peloton and she has been at the top of the sport since 2014 when she first joined the Rabobank-Liv team. La Flèche Wallonne was Van der Breggen’s first major one-day win. That same year she won the Giro Rosa and La Course by Le Tour de France. The next year she won a little one-day you may have heard of: the Olympic Road Race, in Rio de Janeiro.
As good as Van der Breggen is, could her dominance be a result of the unique nature of this very unique race?
La Flèche Wallonne is a fascinating race because the nature of the final climb is so challenging it eliminates the usual race tactics. Yes, there are still tactics involved in the lead-up to the climb, but once the climb has started it’s one of the rare occasions in cycling where the strongest rider is almost guaranteed the win. Anna van der Breggen, for the last seven years, has been the strongest rider. Perhaps she was also the strongest rider in many of the races she didn’t win, but when the race finishes atop a 1 km long climb with grades reaching 20%, it’s a slow-motion crawl to the line. There is no drafting. Teammates are of little use. It’s the riders and their legs that do the talking.
What about the tactics leading into the climb you ask? Well, when the finish is as decisive as the Mur de Huy, the strongest riders can be even more confident in their ability to win. Therefore their teams will make it their sole mission to deliver their ace rider to the base of the climb in perfect position. Demi Vollering’s one-woman move to bring back Ruth Winder on Wednesday is a perfect example.
A large part of winning bike races is remaining calm under pressure. Van der Breggen pretty much wrote the book on remaining calm during a race. By 2021, with six Flèche Wallonne titles to her name, she knew exactly what she needed to do to win a seventh time.
If a rider who is not a climber wanted to win La Flèche Wallonne they would need a significant gap to be able to do so. The final 1 km of the race takes five minutes to complete, so the standard rule of being able to chase down 10 seconds for every kilometre does not apply. For example, Ruth Winder would have needed roughly 60 seconds to remain ahead of Van der Breggen on the Mur de Huy. Given the nature of the parcours and the laser-like focus the top teams have on deciding the race on that final climb, it is very rare any late breakaways ever get close to gaining that sort of advantage.
Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, this was the final time we will see Van der Breggen storm up the Mur de Huy. The world champion has already announced her plans to retire at the end of 2021 and move into the driver’s seat of the SD Worx team car in 2022. After Wednesday’s race Van der Breggen said “it’s a strange thought that I am sitting here for the last time. Next year I won’t bother the girls anymore; it’s up to somebody else. That’s a good thing – I am really happy to finish it off like this.”
We will not know who will be able to take Van der Breggen’s spot on the top step of Flèche Wallonne for a year, but one thing is certain, it may take years for anyone else to be named Queen of the Mur de Huy.