Like many of this year’s spring classics, tomorrow’s Flèche Wallone has changed its parcours in an effort to create a more exciting finale in a race that traditionally has ended with a “field sprint” up the Mur de Huy. With pitches topping-out at 25%, the iconic Mur tests the riders’ legs 3 times—with the final ascent constituting the race’s final kilometer. Beginning in Charleroi, the race makes a beeline for Huy, where it then begins the first of two laps in the Ardennes. The first tour covers 100 kilometers and 6 climbs before ending with a second ascent of the Mur. With the new parcours, a shorter, 30-kilometer tour is now all that separates the riders from the finish line. The final lap includes only 1 climb, the Côte d'Ereffe, but with the penultimate ascent of the Mur now coming a mere 30 kilometers from the finish line, some expect a much smaller group of favorites to remain in contention for win by the time the race returns to Huy.
Unlike many mid-week classics, Flèche Wallone rarely produces a surprise winner as the Mur de Huy proves adept at separating the men from the boys. That said, here’s a ranking of the top-15 men taking the line in Charleroi with realistic aspirations to take the win.
15. Pierrick Fedrigo’s been targeting the Ardennes ever since his summit finish stage win and overall title at the Criterium International in March. The BBox rider used the Circuit de la Sarthe as his final preparation for the week, finishing 11th overall in the process. While he cannot be expected outsprint the top favorites should a large group hit the bottom of the Mur de Huy, he is just the type of rider to capitalize should a breakaway emerge following the climb’s penultimate ascension 30 kilometers from the finish. It’s been a terrific spring for BBox, can the Frenchman continue the trend?
14. Fedrigo’s teammate Thomas Voeckler is another rider who might be looking to upset the main favorites from a late-race breakaway. A punchy, aggressive rider unafraid to initiate important selections, Voeckler’s clearly in shape following his 6th-place finish in the Brabantse Pijl. An aggressive ride by Voeckler would go a long way toward making this one of the most successful French springs in recent memory.
13. Joaquin Rodriguez comes to Flèche Wallone hoping to rebound from his DNF in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. Rodriguez might benefit should he find himself free to play the role of Katusha’s joker, covering moves and setting things up for his Russian co-captains, Alexandr Kolobnev and Sergei Ivanov. If given some free rein inside the final hour, Rodriguez could earn Katusha its first win in the Ardennes.
12. Ryder Hesjedal’s 2nd-place Sunday was the Canadian’s best one-day result to date. He’ll benefit from the Christian Vandevelde’s addition to Garmin’s squad in the Ardennes. Hesjedal’s not afraid to attack if he feels the moment is right. The Côte d'Ereffe 11 kilometers from the finish could be just the springboard he needs to take another important win for his American team.
11. Chris Horner’s 10th-place in the Amstel Gold Race followed closely on the heels of his win the Tour of the Basque Country—clearly the American from Team Radio Shack is in the form of his life. Like others, Horner’s an aggressive rider who’s unafraid to take matters into his own hands. With Haimar Zubeldia, Yaroslav Popovych, and Andreas Kloden joining him in Charleroi, Horner has the firepower and team support he needs to take the win.
10. Sergei Ivanov’s performance in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race proved his win last year was no fluke. (His 10-day training camp in Tenerife seems to be paying dividends as well.) Overshadowed by the Russian’s victory last year is the fact that he followed it with a 13th-place finish in Flèche Wallone and a 5th-place finish in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With a new finale and a deep team supporting him, Ivanov’s not to be overlooked.
9. Rabobank’s Robert Gesink comes to Flèche Wallone hoping to avenge a poor performance by his team in last Sunday’s race. Flèche’s relatively short distance compared to other classics benefits Gesink—especially against such tough competition. Gesink could use a win tomorrow to prove he has the mental and physical toughness to contend in major one-day events.
8. Alexandr Kolobnev is the third Katusha rider to make the top-15 for Wednesday. Kolobnev’s been knocking on the door of a big win for some time now; his last gasp attack inside the final 10 kilometers Sunday almost gave it to him. If he and his teammates can work cohesively to attack and counter-attack the lead group, one of them might just be able to break free for victory. Given his performance Sunday and his steady progression, Kolobnev is his team’s best chance for the win.
7. Roman Kreuziger and Liquigas come to the Ardennes hoping to end their spring campaign with a win. Like Robert Gesink, Kreuziger’s someone who seems to falter in the crucial moments of major one-day events, missing moves, making poor choices, or crashing on his way to just missing the win. He has the form necessary to find success Wednesday and is bolstered by a powerful teammate in Vincenzo Nibali. If he does it, he’ll take his biggest one-day win since he won the Junior World Championship in 2004.
6. Damiano Cunego awoke from his slumber to take an impressive 6th-place Sunday. Given Cunego’s quiet build-up to this week’s races, one can only assume the Italian’s better days are still to come. For a rider often known for timing his peaks too early, this might be a good thing. With a unified team supporting him, Cunego could easily take his first Ardennes victory Wednesday. Or, he could use this year’s Flèche to put the finishing touches on his form for Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race that’s eluded him in the past.
5. Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert has made it known that he’s focusing more on Liège than Flèche. Seeing as he’s been more or less at a top level since Milan-San Remo, it’s hard to blame him for carefully picking his battles. That said, following his dominating performance in Amstel don’t be surprised to find Gilbert in a position to take the win Wednesday. Sometimes a good bluff makes all the difference!
4. Alejandro Valverde missed last Sunday’s race due to the volcanic ash-related European airport closures. He comes to Flèche Wallone—a race he won in 2006—in good form and backed by a proven team including world #1 Luis Leon Sanchez. That said, I wonder if the lost weekend will have a negative effect on the Spanish star. With the majority of his competition having raced last weekend, Valverde might need Flèche to “clean out the pipes” or “prime the needle” so to speak. If that’s the case, look for a relatively subpar performance Wednesday followed by fireworks in Liège. If it isn’t—well, you know.
3. Cadel Evans has ridden well this season but fallen short of scoring his first win for BMC. Flèche Wallone is his latest chance to show if his rainbow jersey will give him the confidence to win major races on a more consistent basis. He worked dutifully Sunday to position teammate Karsten Kroon for the victory and still had enough left to finish 13th, an indicator of his fitness. Evans has come close in Flèche before, finishing 5th last year and 2nd the year before. With a team motivated to earn it’s first big win, Evans might just have what it takes to hit the podium’s top step.
2. Give Astana’s Alberto Contador credit for wanting to win more races than just the Tour de France. After his 3rd stage race win of the season in last week’s Vuelta a Castilla y Lyon, the Spaniard comes to Flèche hoping to add a classic to his tally. If not for the uncertainty following changes to the parcours, Contador might be the #1 favorite, as he possesses an uphill acceleration few can match. Contador is relatively unproven in major one-day events, though. There’s a different rhythm to a stage race, especially when you’re waiting for the mountains to plan your attack. Then again, this is Alberto Contador we’re talking about—he’s simply too talented to be discounted.
1. Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck is my top favorite for this year’s Flèche Wallone. He has what might be the best team in the race supporting him, he’s clearly in-form, and he knows these roads well. Schleck’s attacks in the finale of last Sunday’s race might have easily obliterated the field, yet he appearred strangely uninterested in taking the bull by the horns. Maybe he’s more focused on winning another Liège-Bastogne-Liège—or maybe he’s just biding his time. Regardless, look for the younger Schleck to take the win tomorrow—possibly standing atop a podium that resembles the Tour de France more than a spring classic.
So that’s my take—what about you? Who are your picks for tomorrow’s Flèche Wallone? Share your comments below.