The 1.3km climb at 9.3 per cent may not sound that imposing on its statistics, but the easier start and finish to the climb belie the very tough middle to later sections, which top out at a nasty 25 per cent gradient. The iconic climb has been at the heart of the race since 1983, and whilst other races change their course often, the popularity of the Mur de Huy means that it will always be the home of the Fleche Wallonne.
That doesn’t mean that the organisers haven’t tried to spice things up, and the addition of the Cote de Cherave, 1.3km at 8.1 per cent, which summits with 5.5km remaining, has given late attackers the opportunity to take a surprise win. Last year’s race was the first with the new climb in play. It saw Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) make it to the bottom of the Mur with a small advantage in hand over the peleton, only to be swamped, similar to what happened to the Belgian at Amstel Gold on Sunday. It would take a significant advantage at the foot of the Mur for a rider to be able to stay away to the finish, certainly at least 20-30 seconds.
The battle for the win will most likely come down to the final ascent of the race’s signature climb, and it is always a fascinating battle on the slopes, as the favourites compete against each other. First there is the battle for position on the flat run-in and then the easier early sections, as the teams of the top riders try and position their man on the front of the narrow roads. The favourites try to stay as close as possible to the front from there on, there isn’t much space to pass, and on the steeper sections almost no value to taking shelter behind others. Where the attacks get launched changes from year to year, and it is just as likely that a move will be made from the bottom as from the top of the climb. At the finish line, the last few hundred metres is barely more than a false flat, but it is the slowest sprint for the win that you will see in cycling, as the energy reserves are all but emptied by this point.
It’s a very particular style of rider that can win on the Mur de Huy, and the punchy climbers have consistently beaten out the grand tour riders and even some of the more traditional classics stars.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is a three-time winner of this race, but will arrive here with a different formline to normal, as he concentrates on arriving at the Giro D’Italia in good form. That meant that he skipped Amstel Gold, and surely won’t be quite in his peak condition here. Nonetheless, he took two stages and the overall at the recent Vuelta a Castilla Leon and the experienced Spaniard never rides a poor race, so he won’t be far away from the front of the race.
Challenging for Valverde’s crown will be his perennial rival Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), who still hasn’t forgiven him for costing him the World Championships in 2013. There was a time where the veteran was untouchable on these types of steep finishes but illness and crashes have meant that Rodriguez has only taken one Fleche Wallonne, as well as a Tour de France stage that finished here. It has been a very quiet season for the 36-year-old, but a solid showing at the Tour of the Basque Country shows that he’ll bring some form here.
Another who was very strong in northern Spain was Sergio Henao (Sky), who appears to have taken a big step up in his progression this season. He has been among the best whenever the road has tilted upwards this year, and he has added a really explosive attack to his repertoire, which will serve him well here. He will be focusing on doing a strong ride in the Giro d’Italia, but appears to be in top form at the moment. He already has a second place in this race, after attacking early on the climb in the 2013 edition, only to be beaten by the experienced Dani Moreno (Katusha). This time around Henao will be a lot tougher to hold off.
Challenging the Spanish trio is Julien Alaphillipe (Etixx-QuickStep), who had his breakout race in this race last year, finishing second, before repeating the feat later in the week at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. A young star already, his explosive start to last season was cut short by a bout of glandular fever, which were the cause of mysterious sub-par showings before his diagnosis. He appears fully recovered, and in better form than this stage last year, so there’s no reason that he can’t go one better.
The Frenchman will have to share leadership with Daniel Martin however, as Martin will have come over to the squad with the promise of being able to target these races. He is as good as any on the steep slopes of the Mur, but he regularly gets caught out of position and often finds himself attacking too late in the race and having to chase the leaders to the finish. He also has a habit of crashing in these classics, he crashed out last season and of course everyone remembers the infamous final corner wipeout at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2014. If he can manage his luck for once, then it could be a return to the podium for the dual monument winner.
Two steep climb specialists round out the list of likely winners, with Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R) and Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) not often considered as team leaders for their respective teams. They both excel on these steep, short efforts, and while Albasini is a past master at doing well here, Vuillermoz probably has a bit more potential to win, after his third in the Tour de France stage last year here and his stage win on the similarly steep Mur de Bretagne later in the race.
A race with a different flavour to the other Ardennes classics, Fleche Wallonne may not be as unpredictable as the other races, but that isn’t so bad when the prediction is that the Mur de Huy will be the scene of some impressive fireworks.