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CS Expert Panel: Flèche Wallonne

Cycle Sport’s team of experts takes a look at the midweek Flèche Wallonne Classic which features cycling’s most notorious uphill finish, the Mur de Huy

Edward Pickering
Deputy Editor, Cycle Sport

There should be more to it, but recent years have seen the race reduced to just a sprint up the Mur de Huy. Since there are about three riders capable of winning such a sprint, you’d think that more teams would do more to try and take the race away from them, although it’s obviously more complicated than that.

The course doesn’t favour attackers, however – the shorter distance of Flèche (it’s 201km, compared to 255km for Liège) means that more riders are able to stay the course, resulting in the top riders having domestiques at hand to chase down escapees. The descent from the penultimate climb, the Côte d’Ereffe, is shallow and open – perfect territory for a fast chase, which shuts down escapees, and prevents any more from getting away.

But all that said, I don’t mind too much – the slow-motion sprint up the Mur is an incredible spectacle, and watching the deceleration from 40 kilometres per hour in the drag up through Huy to 10 or 15 kilometres per hour up the steep slope is an object lesson in the laws of physics and just how inconvenient they are for bike riders.

It’s a nice route, although there must be a better approach to the final climb of the Mur. The second ascent is followed by a draggy, open road, where attackers are highly visible in front, so it would take a lot of nerve to go here – it’s 30 kilometres out. But it’s all about the final climb of the Mur, which is one of cycling’s most entertaining finishes. It’s so steep, I half expect to see stalled riders sliding back down to the bottom again.

My favourite Flèche memory is Cadel Evans’ win last year. He’d spent the previous two years getting the climb wrong – going too fast too soon, and falling victim to his own strength. But he finally unlocked the secret to the Mur last year.

The strongest rider doesn’t win Flèche unless he’s the most patient as well. Winning on the Mur means not going all out on the steepest section, no matter what rivals are doing. It’s in the final 100 metres, where the gradient relents, that a rider can make a huge difference, and overtake spent rivals. For two years, Evans was the rider who went hardest and fastest up the steep section. Last year, he waited for that final section, and was able to claw his way past Alberto Contador, who’d fatally misjudged the climb.

It certainly did. It made me all but convinced that Joaquim Rodriguez is going to win. Rodriguez is probably the best rider in the world on a steep uphill sprint (Exhibit A: the Montelupone climb in Tirreno-Adriatico in 2008, And have a look at last year’s race, where he came from fourth to second, and was gaining on Evans at the end:  (6:50 onwards)). He couldn’t match Gilbert on the Cauberg, but the Cauberg suits Gilbert much better. The Mur de Huy is perfect territory for Rodriguez, who has form, the ability, and crucially, a front-row seat in last year’s masterclass by Evans.

1 Joaquim Rodriguez
2 Alberto Contador (not saying I’m happy about it, just that’s what I think will happen)
3 Robert Gesink

Marianne Vos. I’d love to see Nicole Cooke back to her best, but I’m not convinced it’s going to be this year.

Lionel Birnie
Writer, Cycle Sport

There’s more to it than that, but not much. The super-steep climbs get all the attention because they are spectacular, particularly at the end of races, but in truth all we’re treated to is a slow-mo sprint. That’s great, but you can have too much of a good thing.

With Amstel Gold’s move to the Cauberg and the uphill finish at Ans at the end of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we now have three slow-mo sprints in a week. And they are contested by the same dozen or so riders each time. I’d like to see the Mur de Huy used as a finish only on alternate years. And I’d like the finish of Liège to return to the wide Boulevard de la Sauvenière in the city centre. The Mur is too long and steep to give much hope to anyone thinking of attacking before the bottom and hoping to hold on. So it’s all about the timing. Remember Evans getting it wrong in 2008 and 2009 before finally hitting the bullseye last year.

Without a doubt, it’s a crowd pleaser for the fans on the Mur. The race goes over it three times – plus there’s the women’s race. It’s a real stadium atmosphere, with the crowd growing throughout the morning. There’s the smell of beer, burgers and chips. Oh, and cigarette smoke. You have to ride or walk up the climb to truly appreciate how steep it is. It looks incredibly steep on TV but even the cameras cannot do it justice. The Z-bend midway up is ridiculous. The rest of the course uses the lanes and hills to good effect but it’s really all about the Mur. The second and final passages of the Mur are now closer together than they used to be, which does prolong the finale a bit and encourages a bit more aggression second time up.

The first time I covered the race, in 2000, when Chris Boardman attacked after 19 kilometres and Raimondas Rumsas went with him. The bunch let them go and Boardman and Rumsas took a flyer. They averaged 45kph for the first two hours and gained a lead of 12 minutes. With 60 kilometres to go they still had about seven minutes. Boardman was doing some extraordinarily long turns on the front. Behind them there were fireworks with a small group getting away. I think Matt White was in it. Boardman finally lost contact with Rumsas, with about 13 kilometres to go. The Lithuanian was captured a couple of kilometres later. I can’t remember who won, without looking. [It was Francesco Casagrande]. I was young and inexperienced at the time and thought Boardman would be devastated to have tried so hard only to be caught. His pragmatism struck me. He started reeling off scientific stats – the number of calories he’d burned, the watts he’d put out. It was only later in the year I realised it had been a big experiment, part of his preparation for the Athlete’s Hour attempt.

Cadel Evans is injured so it won’t be him. Philippe Gilbert will be up there but he may prefer to save himself for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I’d expect Katusha to be strong – with Joaquim Rodriguez (runner-up last year and at Amstel on Sunday), Serguei Ivanov, Alexandr Kolobnev and Danilo Di Luca (winner in 2005) all capable of a result. Whether Di Luca winning would be a good thing is up for each to decide. Personally I’d rather someone else. Leopard have Frank and Andy Schleck as well as Jakob Fuglsang. I’d expect Robert Gesink to be up there too. Perhaps Ryder Hesjedal if he is over his tummy trouble. Damiano Cunego was quiet at Amstel, perhaps he’s prioritising the two Belgian races. Alberto Contador is riding too. The thought of him winning shows how contorted and conflicted the leadership in professional cycling is.

1 Andy Schleck
2 Robert Gesink
3 Joaquim Rodriguez

I would have backed Emma Pooley, the defending champion, to repeat last year’s win. However, she crashed during training in Switzerland and will be out for a few weeks. So, Marianne Vos has to be the big favourite. She won Flèche Wallonne in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and she’s in great form, having won the Ronde van Drenthe at the weekend. If not Vos, look out for Cooke. It’s been a quiet start to the season but she’s won on the Mur three times before (2003, 2005 and 2006).

Ellis Bacon
Writer, Cycle Sport

Sure, it’s the bit everyone remembers – a bit like the Cauberg at Amstel Gold. But like the Cauberg, there are multiple ascents of the Mur to enjoy – three in all – which certainly helps sort the men from the boys. So you could just turn your TV on for the last two minutes of the race, but it’s a little like only watching the last stage of the Tour de France. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.

As suggested, the Mur de Huy does lie at the heart of the race, and is the first and last climb of the day. Those climbs that come in between, the second ascension of the Mur excepted, may not be as steep, but they are longer, and serve to soften the legs up nicely for the final effort. The last time up the Mur to the finish is all about keeping your powder dry until just the right moment: you mustn’t go too early, but you can’t leave it too late, either.

Rik Verbrugghe winning in 2001 after he just rode his breakaway companions off his wheel at the bottom of the Mur. There was something really old school about a Belgian winning a Belgian Classic in a leather crash hat. It was 2001, and he was one of the few riders still using one. Were it not for second-placed Ivan Basso getting his mug in the shot, the pictures of Verbrugghe winning could have been from the ’70s or ’80s.

It shows who’s in form right now, which is some help, but the fact that the Mur is that much steeper than the Cauberg means that it’s more suited to the pure climbers who are capable of going the distance of a Classic. Contenders for Flèche are often bubbling under at Amstel, while also looking ahead to Liège the following weekend, too.

A Schleck is surely going to feature somewhere, but let’s give their young Leopard-Trek teamk-mate Fuglsang some credit for what is obviously some superb form at the moment:

1 Jakob Fuglsang
2 Alberto Contador
3 Janez Brajkovic

Until she broke her collarbone in a training crash, you would have put big money on Emma Pooley defending her title. In her absence, I’m going to come over all patriotic and say Nicole Cooke, who’s won here three times before and is due a return to form.

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One Comment

  • Kai Muller says:

    Idea for Changing the Great Classic Races of Cycling
    such as the Milan-San Remo, the Paris-Roubaix, and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

    Main reason for implementing this :
    to improve the viewing quality for the viewing public tuning in on the TV. It will be better to watch, because instead of being made to see one or two opportunistic break-aways all pulled back and get nothing for it, with it seems horribly like 99% of all not-hugely mountainous races ending in a big bunch sprint, leaving the viewing public wondering why they bothered to watch the last 100 km of the race when only the last 1 km seems to matter toward the outcome of the race. Dull dull dull. But no longer with this great solution, which will lead to good viewing suspense, new team strategies, and good viewing excitement for those watching on TV:

    The existing focus on the order of the riders crossing the finishing line is kept but shrunken to 60% if the prize money for the day.

    40 % go to the main combatants of this new system, as follows:
    15% goes to the winner of the tournament-in-a-day competition
    10% each go to the other two finalists of the tournament-in-a-day competition
    2.5% each go to the two cyclists who made it to the last 5 (but not the last 3) in the tournament-in-a-day competition

    The tournament-in-a-day competition:
    With 80 km to go before the finishing line for the day, a sprint determines who (= the first cyclist to cross this line) qualifies for the 2nd stage of the tournament-in-a-day competition;

    With 75 km to go before the finishing line for the day, a further sprint determines who (= the first cyclist to cross this line, apart from the person who has already qualified) qualifies for the 2nd stage of the tournament-in-a-day competition;

    With 70 km to go before the finishing line for the day, a sprint determines who (= the first cyclist to cross this line, apart from the 2 persons who have already qualified) qualifies for the 2nd stage of the tournament-in-a-day competition;

    A 4th cyclist qualifies at the 65 km to go mark
    And a 5th cyclist qualifies at the 60 km to go mark

    These are the only 5 riders from the entire race who are eligible for the prestigious and well-paid crown of the tournament-in-a-day competition

    If the same break-away of 5 or more riders was ahead of the peloton at all the above sprint markers, it goes without say that only those who were in this break-away and who sprinted well, are left in the running for this title.

    Phase 2:
    At the 45 km to go marker, a sprint to the line determines which one of the 5 riders to have qualified for stage 2 of the tournament-in-a-day competition qualifies further to its (phase 3) final.

    A further sprint at the 40 km to go marker determines which one of the other 4 riders to have qualified for stage 2 of the tournament-in-a-day competition qualifies to its phase 3.

    A further sprint at the 30 km to go marker determines which one of the other 3 riders to have qualified for stage 2 of the tournament-in-a-day competition qualifies to its phase 3.

    Phase 3:
    Then with 10 km to go, a final sprint determines which one of the 3 who qualified for phase 3 wins the title of winner of the tournament-in-a-day competition.

    This 3 phase system makes the elite races into a fascinating thing to watch; and it brings in the element of qualifying for something worth fighting for during the course of a one-day classic race in, allowing viewers to track changes and break-away attempts aimed at winning further qualification as the race goes on in a big new way.

    Idea for Changing the Great And the New Tour Races of Road Cycling for the Better

    Idea 2: This goes well with the above, and it will bring in more good-stuff to the viewing experience on the big tours + adds a new layer of opportunity and suspense to the race (plus it kills off the current situation where most of the effort that goes into break-aways is a long-shot gamble and a complete waste of energy):

    A blue jersey is brought in (in addition to the yellow, polka-dot and sprinters jerseys). This jersey is for riders who fought hard in break-aways on flat(ish) stages.

    Blue jersey points are earned as follows:
    10 points for each participant in a break-away that got itself 10-19 seconds ahead of the peloton (main bunch) at any time check on the day.

    This same combination of riders gets an 11th point each if they get 20-29 seconds clear;
    A 12th point if they get 30-39 seconds clear;
    A 13th point if they get 40-49 seconds clear;
    A 14th point if they get 50-59 seconds clear;
    A 15th point if they get 1 minute to 1 minute 19 seconds clear;
    A 16th point if they get 1 minute 20 – 1 minute 39 seconds clear;
    A 17th point if they get 1 minute 40 – 1 minute 59 seconds clear;
    A 18th point if they get 2 minutes to 2 minutes 29 seconds clear;
    A 19th point if they get 2 minutes 30 to 2 minutes 59 seconds clear;
    A 20th point if they get 3 minutes or more clear;

    Different combinations of riders (e.g. if a break-away group shrinks or grows by 1 rider or by several riders): a further score of 10-20 points is awarded for each new combination of riders in the break-away(s) that gets a ‘number of seconds currently ahead of the peloton’ time check.

    In addition, 3 points, 2 points and 1 point are awarded each day for the riders who spent the most time at the very front of the break-away group(s) overall, working to pull it along and to keep it ahead.

    Then after the first 5 flat stages have been run, all further flat stages of the tour after this count double (20 to 40 instead of 10-20 and 6 ,4, 2 instead of 3,2,1).

    A third idea is to bring in a striped jersey, which consists of one against one battles for the day. Each of these one against one battles for the day is decided by: 1. Yellow (if they do not end the day in the same group of riders, this overrides all else)
    2. Blue (if one of them was involved in any break-away this day that the other one was not involved in, they win the clash)
    3. Red: Each one-against one battle has its own special sprint lines: The first one takes place somewhere between the 80 km to go and the 50 km to go on the day markers (where exactly is decided by a drawing). The second one takes place somewhere between the 50 km to go and the 20 km to go on the day markers (where exactly is decided by a drawing). And for those one-on-one encounters where the above yellow, blue and 2 special sprints do not determine a winner, the first to cross the end of the day’s stage line at the end of the day’s stage decides the winner of the one-on-one encounter (acting as the third sprint in a 2 out of 3 red sprints system).

    The suggested format to consider for the striped jersey battles in the tour as a whole is to have 2 qualifying and 4 best positions days, all near the start of the tour (and not use the time trial stages).
    The first and second (mass-start) stages on the cycling tour are to determine 8 qualifiers each for the striped jersey:
    The stage winner of the day is one of these 8 qualifiers;
    5 of the remaining 7 qualifying slots from each day are determined by yellow (counts more than) blue (counts more than) red points, with red points awarded as 5,3,2,1 points each in three free-for-all sprints (held only on these two days) at approximately 90, 60 and 30 km to go and w,7,5,3,2,1 red points awarded at the end of the day’s race line; and the remaining 2 qualifying slots are determined by the red points alone.

    An alternative might use a time trial or a mountain stage to determine half or all the 16 who qualify for the striped jersey battle.

    A drawing determines who goes up against who among the 16 who have qualified for the striped jersey on its 3rd day.

    On its 4th day, winners of the 3rd day battles go up against each other in the quarter-finals; and losers go up against losers in the battle for a top 10 place.

    On day 5, the 4 riders who have won all their one-on-one battles so far go up against each other in the semi-finals. Others who are still in the running in the battles for 5th or for 9th place in the striped jersey are also allocated new opponents within these brackets.

    Then on day 6 the final standings are decided in the battles for 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th place.

    An alternative suggestion (proposal 3B) puts all 16 qualified riders on the 3rd day and the brackets of 8 and 4 on subsequent days into all-against-all battles, in which the better half (winners) are decided by a yellow counts more than blue counts more than red all-against-all system.

    My 4th good idea proposal is to start each flat day off with a pattern of break-aways, determined by a drawing:

    Starting 6 minutes ahead of the peloton are 5 riders, determined by a drawing, none of whom have had this privilege before in this tour and none of whom are in the top 20 of the yellow jersey or the top 5 of the sprinters jersey battle.

    Then, starting 2 minutes ahead of the peloton are a further 20 riders, determined in a drawing that involves all cyclists other than the above 5.

    The objective of this proposal is to increase the chance of all other outcomes and interim situations other than the all-in-one mass peloton finish, which occurs way too often, in my view, under the current system.

    My proposal 4B is that you have 2 whole teams starting 6 minutes ahead of the peloton each day (determined by a drawing among all the teams other than the top 3 and other than the ones who have had big head starts like this already) and a further 4 whole teams starting 2 minutes ahead of the peloton. You can imagine how the teams would have to decide how hard to fight to stay out in front and how many riders they can drop, and how the peloton is in a must-try-to-catch-them cat-and-mouse situation each time. Other variations of this idea, (such as 1 team, then 2 more, then 3 more teams, then all others) are to be considered too please.

    Proposal 5: Please also consider bringing in a rule that no team is allowed to have more than two exceptions to the rule that all riders within a team must be from the same country (so each team has a national affiliation and no more than two riders from other countries racing for it).

    A combination of any 1, 2 or 3 of the above ideas could be used in a tour, making it a better thing to watch, and making the world a better place.

    I hope you see these ideas not as something threatening or anti-establishment, but as a good idea, a strong proposal, something that can and in the coming years, with YOUR help WILL make the sport a better thing to watch.

    I hereby grant full rights to use or to change and use this idea of mine free of charge. I hope it succeeds on its own good contents, and finds implementation, so we viewers who want it to be exciting and also slowly unravelling in stages, do not have to suffer for much longer .

    Best Wishes
    K Muller of Norwich

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