The Fleche Wallonne has grown over time as one of the key showpieces of cycling. Seeing riders charge up the incredibly steep slopes of the Mur de Huy is as spectacular a sight as any. It is a race that almost always comes down to that final surge up 'The Wall', with the rider that has that curious mix of raw power and a climber's physique emerging the winner at the top.
The 2017 Flèche Wallonne LIVE coverage begins streaming online at 10:05pm AEST and at 10:55pm AEST SBS Viceland HD.
That is true of the men's race at least, the women's Fleche Wallonne plays a lot more aggressively. With smaller team sizes than the men's, it is harder for even the big squads to control the peloton and the race often splits up well before the final ascent of the Mur de Huy. In the past few seasons, Anna van der Breggen has made the most of team tactics and incredibly strong legs to arrive at the foot of the final climb with only a few riders in tow and then powered up the 'Mur' to win.
The 2017 edition offers a slightly different challenge from previous years, the 'Mur' will be scaled three times in the final 58 kilometres, whilst the run into the final loops will be a bit flatter than past editions. That is probably a positive move, as apart from being renowned for it's tough finish, Fleche Wallonne is infamous for the amount of crashes that happen on the narrow Belgian roads as riders descend at speed.
Will the course changes be enough to spice up the race a bit? Organisers are a bit annoyed that a lot of the action in the race seems always to be waiting for the final run up the 'Mur' and the changes this time are designed to encourage action from further out. The same was intended in the past with the introduction of the Cote de Cherave, which crests with 5.5 kilometres remaining, but that hasn't seen any race-winning moves go clear at that point yet.
Movistar will be likely be heavily controlling the peloton to keep it together for their team captain Alejandro Valverde. The evergreen Spanish star has shown no signs of slowing up despite being a veteran of the sport and has already taken nine wins this season. His recent form at the Vuelta Pais Vasco was superb on the steep climbs and whilst he was out-pointed at Amstel Gold on Sunday, he still remains the big favourite coming into the race.
The Sky pair of Michael Kwiatkowski and Sergio Henao appear the best placed to wrest Valverde from the top of the podium. Kwiatkowski's poor timing in the sprint was the only thing that prevented him from winning Amstel Gold on Sunday and he appears to be in red-hot form at the moment. He is well suited to Fleche Wallonne, he was third here in 2014 and looks to have the right mix of explosion and climbing prowess to win here.
That is, unless Sergio Henao is Team Sky's leader instead. The punchy Colombian was the perfect teammate at Amstel Gold, marking moves and sitting on when required. He may expect that favour to be returned here by Kwiatkowski in a race that appears to be Henao's best chance at winning an Ardennes classic. It is quite hard to work as a team on the Mur de Huy, however, so the value of having a teammate helping on the steepest slopes at the end is unlikely to tip the balance drastically in favour of Sky.
Daniel Martin (QuickStep Floors) is a rider built for this race, but he hasn't managed to get to the top step of the podium yet. Second in 2014 and third last year, Martin clearly likes the Mur de Huy, it's just that he's been stuck behind Alejandro Valverde so far. The Irishman probably just needs a few more per cent to take the win however, his acceleration on the steep slopes is one that few can follow and maybe he can carry some of his team's winning form into the race.
Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott) is seemingly getting better and better the older he gets. So much so, that he appears to have taken the mantle of Ardennes classics leader away from Simon Gerrans. The 36 year old was a very impressive third at Amstel Gold, going with the critical move and then showing his strength with a comfortable win in the sprint for the podium. His second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year was a breakout result and now he returns to the race where he is best suited as he is in some of the best form of his career. The Swiss rider has racked up seven top ten finishes in the past nine years in the race, despite being a heavier rider, he seems right at home on the 'Mur'. Will be a shock to see him not do well here.
Australian hopes will rest with Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) and Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb). Neither is particularly well performed here in the past in terms of results, but Haas in particular was keen to have a go at the finale after being Dan Martin's wingman in the past. His results in hilltop finishes at the Tour Down Under were good, so it will be interesting to see how he fairs here. Matthews will likely struggle a bit with the extreme gradients of the Mur de Huy. but he clearly has the ability and punch to win in the final kick to the line if he can keep in touch with the leaders.
If you're looking to cast a wider net, take a look at the likes of Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale), Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).
For the women's the standout favourite is Anna van der Breggen. Despite starting off the year with some mountain-biking and then falling ill, the Olympic champion has bounced back with a series of superb showings. She arguably could have added a Tour of Flanders win before her imperious Amstel Gold victory and now arrives at the race that suits her punchy climbing ability perfectly.
Her Boels Dolmans teammates are also coming back into form, a slow start for the team overall has seen them even more hungry for wins in the classics. Former world champion Lizzie Deignan and last years Womens World Tour winner Megan Guarnier are both just as capable of taking the win and all the other teams will have to keep an eye out for the team in orange.
Orica-Scott have clearly taken a step-up this season, they are more consistently animating races and forcing the issue and they have taken a number of top results to go along with those performances. Annemiek van Vleuten will hope to back up from her dead-heat third at Amstel Gold with a typically strong performance, whilst Kat Garfoot should be right at home on these types of power climbs. Garfoot was a bit unlucky with a mechanical in the Amstel Gold, but looks ready to show some of the top form that made her the dual Australian national time trial and road race champion this year.
Other Australian hopefuls include Shara Gillow (FDJ-Aquitane Futuroscope) and Carlee Taylor (Ale Cipollini), both are better suited to other races however and probably stand the best chance at causing an upset from a breakaway.
Whoever it is on the Mur de Huy, the specatacle will be first-class. There is little that compares to the thrill of seeing the top climbers in the peloton wrangle their bikes over the steepest parts of the 'Mur' before somehow finding the energy to launch attacks and sprint for the line.