So, as the peloton gets ready for the 137km Fleche Wallonne, all other teams will be focused on breaking the Boels Dolmans stranglehold on success.
The course itself is the same as the men’s, with only the initial lead-in to the finishing circuits cut out to bring the race down in total kilometres, but leaving in almost all the climbing. The second ascent of the Mur de Huy, 1.3km at 9.6 per cent, with 29km remaining is a potential launchpad for attackers, but with the addition of the Cote de Cherave, 1.3km at 8.1 per cent, with only 5.5km left in the race, many will prefer to save their legs for that.
It was the Cote de Cherave that saw the formation of the winning move last year, with eventual winner Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) and Annemiek Van Vleuten (then Bigla, now Orica-AIS) getting away and holding the advantage through to the Mur de Huy, where van der Breggen powered clear. It will be interesting to see if a similar pattern follows this season, or if the riders will wait for the Mur de Huy.
All eyes will be on Boels Dolmans to see if they can maintain their improbably long series of wins, and as per usual they have an in-form squad turning up to contest the win. Headlining the charge will be Elizabeth Armitstead, who has four wins from six race days this season. She has said that she is reducing the number of her race days with her focus on the Rio Olympics later in the season, but it hasn’t stopped her winning with a very impressive strike rate so far. The consummate professional, Fleche Wallonne will be her last race before a break leading into her Rio preparation, so it is likely she’ll be near top form and very hard to beat again.
It hasn’t been just the strength of Armitstead that has allowed her to take so many wins, with the team regularly the dominating the numbers at the front of the race, which has created situations which has allowed Chantal Blaak to take two wins from moves which have left other teams on the back foot. The climbs in the finale should prove a bit too hard for Blaak, but her teammates Megan Guarnier, Ellen van Dijk and Evelyn Stevens all have the legs to conquer the Mur, and recent good form in stage races at the Energiewacht Tour and Emakumeen Bira.
Leading the list of teams trying to topple the Dutch squad is Wiggle-High5 team, which will be led by the twin pronged attack of Emma Johansson and Elisa Longo Borghini.
The Ms. Consistent of the cycling world, Johansson is coming two stage wins and the overall victory at the Emakumeen Bira. She’s very experienced, and has equal ability to climb, sprint or win from an attack. She is often the rider that just misses out on the wins at these big classics, but all she needs is a bit of luck or improvement to win here.
Elisa Longo Borghini also comes in with strong, if not winning form. Her best results have come from long range moves, so keep an eye out for her on the second last ascent of the Mur de Huy or the Cote de Cherave.
The team with the most number of wins in the race will be the Rabo-Liv squad, who have last year’s champion, the powerful Anna van der Breggen and four time winner Marianne Vos on the comeback trail from injury. A lot of attention will be focused on Vos, so far she has avoided the major races after returning to racing, but has still looked ominous in her performances against slightly lesser fields. With her status as a three-time world champion on the road, she will be looking to get back to her best after a series of injuries took her out of competition in 2015. It might be a bit soon to expect fireworks from Vos against the best here, so the leadership may fall to van der Breggen, who whilst not enjoying her best form this season, has the proven ability to drop anyone on the climbs.
The super consistent Ashleigh Moolman (Cervelo Bigla) has been in the top five on the past four editions of the race, and with her third in the Emakumeen Bira, is coming into good legs at the right time.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-AIS) was second last year and with her current form in races like the Tour of Flanders and Energiewacht Tour (where she was second), she can realistically dream of going one better.
From an Australian perspective, it will be interesting to see the High5 national development team race in one of the biggest races on the women’s scene. Youngsters Jenelle Crooks and Oceania champion Shannon Malseed will be the ones to keep an eye on in the peloton, if not for the win here, then for the future.
Arguably more entertaining than the men’s editions in the past, the women’s Fleche Wallonne tends to be a more open affair to the ‘wait for the Mur de Huy’ mentality of the men’s peloton.
Another exciting edition should be on the cards, with someone able to break the dominance of the Boels Dolmans lineup.