• Rúben Silva

La Flèche Wallonne Preview

The second race in the Ardennes week is upon us, the Flèche Wallonne is the first of the Belgian races, and it is quite a diferent race from Amstel, having it's decision made almost always in the iconic final climb to the Muur de Huy, where it's massive gradients usually see a gruelling sprint finish.

In the last few years the Cote de Cherave has been added to the route adding the dificulty to the end, and also the addition of another lap in the final circuit came to mix things up more.

The Route

As it is normal the route comes just under the 200 kilometer mark, a good challenge but nothing that will benefit the endurance specialists, the race enters the final circuit and has it's dificulties in the final 75 kilometers, as the opening 120 are in a rolling terrain but without many dificulties.

The final circuit consists of 29 kilometers, in it are included the Côte d'Ereffe (2.2Km at 5.8%), that comes with 16 kilometers to go on the final lap, the Côte de Cherave and the Muur de Huy, which we'll see down below.

In the final lap the Cote de Cherave comes with just 6Km to go, it was debuted in the race in 2015 and has since become a vital part of the route. Although vital depends on the way you see it, the climb has seen attacks every year but in none was it decisive.

But in either ways it will bring more fatigue, will be a launchpad for attacks in every lap and will contribute to the race's fragmentation.

After it's summit there is a fast descent, not a technical one, and with just under 4Km to go comes a long flat stretch into the Huy town center, it's a section where usually the teams reorganize and the fight for positioning for the final climb usually eats away the gap of the leaders, which is usually the situation we see at this point of the race.

The fight to the foot of the climb is always an intense one, but after we get to the actual ramps that quickly go up to 10% it ironically calms down. The narrow roads hardly allow for anyone to come to the front, it's a climb that the main contenders have to do from the front from the very start, and in the classic S turn it's normal to see the contenders preparing for the sprint up ahead.

So close to the line with all the contenders in front lead to a situation where rarely anyone attacks in this section, which leads to a quite unusual self-leadout until in the final 200 meters usually it opens up, where a long brutal sprint up the final ramps sees the explosive riders getting the top results. It's a race with a somewhat familiar race situation, and with the Muur as the final ascent it's likely to see the favourites saving themselves for the final ascent.

The Weather

The weather though, it can make for an unexpected change in the race. Luckily the race will likely avoid the rain that's set to start in the end of the afternoon, but the wind will be blowing strongly.

Coming from the south, it will have 30Km/h with 65Km/h gusts, it's serious wind, and although there won't be very exposed roads there are certainly opportunities to form echelons. And in the final circuit what will the wind mean?

Before the Cote d'Ereffe there's an exposed section, flat-out from the side, it can cause major damage there. The lead up to Cherave is with a tailwind so there's favourable conditions to the attackers, as Cherave will be covered by the houses but the tailwind will be back right after the summit, also ideal for a rider to create a gap powering away.

The valley ride leading up to Huy means they will be covered from most of the wind, and in the final climb the wind that will elude the crouds and the buildings will come from the front. This will mean that even in such gradients there will be an advantage to being in the wheel, and leaving the sprint until later can be of a benefit, also it can cause the sprint to start later and dificult the task of creating gaps.

The Favourites

With that said, the favourites are similar to last year's list also. Julian Alaphillipe leads the way as the final climb suits him perfectly. Last year Deceuninck played out perfectly and put Movistar under pressure, where he then lacked the explosiveness in the end. Alaphillipe and Valverde enter as the pre-race favourites as they've taken every win in the race since 2014, Alaphillipe also has an in-form Mas as support, but both these teams lack the depth that some other teams have.

Michal Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels lead Team Sky, Kwiatkowski seems in great form but then again the final climb will require an immense explosiveness which isn't the Pole's speciality, but in either ways after his AGR exhibition he is a big contender. EF has Simon Clarke and Michael Woods, they are a very dangerous duo when it comes to the steep climbs, Woods is preparing for the Giro so he isn't yet in his best form but he rode strong Sunday, and Simon Clarke has been a true surprise all spring long.

Adam Yates leads Mitchelton, and he is a serious threat. He is a lightweight climber, very explosive and he perfectly suits this finish, his disadvantage must be the lack of experience in the race, but that won't be as important as in the other Ardennes classics.

Davide Formolo has been riding superbly this season, he's also one to seriously watch tomorrow, he'll have Pattrick Konrad which is another climber with a good finish, a cracking duo. Romain Bardet makes it into the climber list too, looking in food form after Amstel and he is one who usually performs very well in these classics and has the killer instinct needed to win.

There's Bauke Mollema for Trek and also Michael Matthews present, he was 5th last year so he definetely has the legs to be up there, and with his finish he might even be one of the riders benefited with the wind situation.

And there are the teams who bring serious depth. UAE Emirates comes as the first example with the brutal squad they bring. Dan Martin leads the team having been on the podium 3 times and having a superb form recently in the Basque Country, he'll have as backups is lieutenant in the race Tadej Pogacar. And besides those two there are also Rui Costa, Sergio Henao and Diego Ulissi, surely a squad that will try to light up the race and put others under pressure.

In the climber side there are some more riders with a very good eye for wednesday, there's Jakub Fuglsang who looks in sublime form, until what point the climb suits him it can't be certain as he isn't such an explosive rider, but he's got Gorka Izagirre, Lutsenko, Fraile, Villela and Luis Leon Sanchez as serious support.

Lotto Soudal come as one of the inform teams, Bjorg Lambrecht has been showing tremendous performances and such a finish suits him like a glove, Jelle Vanendert finished on the podium here last year and he is having good legs too. With all this Tim Wellens is being a bit overshadowed despite a good string of results aswell, the finish won't suit him as he's more of a power rider, but that will give the team a very good option for a distance attack, Wellens won't be saved for the final climb surely.

Bahrain-Merida likely don't have a set leader but they have a very strong group. Dylan Teuns and Domenico Pozzovivo are likely taking up the charges, but also Damiano Caruso and Matej Mohoric brings serious firepower to the squad.

The other two teams are somewhat outsiders. Dimension Data have been having a spring to forget, Roman Kreuziger has a good track record in this race and will be the leader for sure, he has Enrico Gasparotto, Michael Valgren and Tom-Jelte Slagter as backups but until what point they'll be able to be in contention is a doubt. The other is Groupama FDJ, they bring youngsters David Gaudu and Valentin Madouas, headlined by Rudy Molard aswell. Molard and Madouas have been riding strongly in the last few weeks, specially the latter, and Gaudu had a surprise result here with 9th in 2017, his skinny physique really favours a steep finish like this one.

The Teams

Deceuninck/Movistar/Mitchelton - The two teams with the strongest contenders, but both will have dificulties controling the race if it's needed.

Lotto Soudal/Astana/Bahrain/UAE - These will have to attack the race, despite having good contenders for the win in their list their strenght comes from team depth, which is exactly why these should make it hard, and put on the pressure in the circuit.

Bora/AG2R/EF/Sky/Sunweb - These also have strong contenders for a top result but will have dificulties to settle in tactical moves early on, so they'll come as allies for the top 3 teams.

Dimension Data/FDJ/Trek - Outsider favourites in a way, they have solid depth but until what point one of them can win is much harder.

CCC/Jumbo-Visma/Katusha - These are the remaining WT teams, they don't really have a rider to contest the race, they have some outsiders but will rely on some luck and tactical smarts.

Euskadi/Israel/Wanty/Rally/Cofidis - There are some good riders in these but the same applies, without luck we won't see them in front contesting in the Muur.

Wallonie/Sport Vlaanderen - These two are home teams essentially, they don't bring a great squad so the breakaway should be their target, to be well represented with some riders would be a solid showing.

Prediction Time

Alaphillipe, Valverde, A.Yates, D.Martin

Matthews, Formolo, Kwiatkowski, Fuglsang, Lambrecht

Pozzovivo, Teuns, Vanendert, Wellens, S.Clarke, Lutsenko, Pogacar, Bardet, Kreuziger, Gaudu, Mollema

Adam Yates beating Valverde in Alcolebre. Adam Yates has 3 wins to his name this season and all of them came fruit of his explosive type of riding. He fits the finish perfectly when you think about it, sure so does it suits Valverde and Alaphillipe, but those two will suffer from the pre-race favouritism and duty to chase moves (their teams). Yates comes as a relative outsider in terms of results here, thus pressure too, he isn't a puncheur so no-one will blame Mitchelton for saving themselves for the end. Yates can sprint for the line, he's my call.

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