Tuesday, 16 April 2013

La Flèche Wallonne: A Preview

Of the three races in Ardennes week this is undoubtedly the least prestigious but prestige aside this race can often be the most exciting. After-effects of crashes at Amstel Gold and an interesting startlist make this years edition less predictable and if the Cauberg got the juices flowing then the Mur de Huy is on another level...

As classics go Wallonne is quite short - a mere 205km but the undulating course is brutal with 11 categorised climbs including three ascents of the vicious Mur de Huy. Often with a route like this we expect the peloton to be strung out and splits to form along the way but this race and it's riders usually come together for the final ascent of the Mur which makes for a furious but exciting finish.

The Mur de Huy itself is a short but samurai sharp climb averaging 9.3% over 1.3 kilometres - double the average gradient of Amstel's Cauberg. The middle section of the slope ramps up to around 17% and the final third rarely drops below 15% though the last 100 metres does level out to around 6% or so. This is not a climb for the faint hearted and the pace means riders will be fighting for position at the front of the race. Accidents can occur as riders hit the steep middle sections and a physical wall - pedal squares here and a pile-up can ensue.

The race is won by the strongest rider but position is everything. Puncheurs do well here but we have seen Grand Tour style winners here in the past like Cadel Evans in 2010 and Purito Rodriguez last year, so who is likely to be heading towards a podium place this year?

Well it's an interesting startlist and crashes in Amsetel Gold last Sunday have perhaps dampened a few riders hopes. Joaquim Rodriguez suffered a thigh strain in Sundays race but has declared himself fit for tomorrow. He won the race last year and the finish suits his turn of pace on the steep sections but whether or not his injury will hinder him is yet to be seen.

Too steep for Sagan?
Peter Sagan has also added himself to the startlist following his poor Amstel Gold showing. Cramps made things difficult for him on Sunday but the Wallonne course is likely to suit him even less, especially if its another warm day - which he says effected him badly on Sunday - he can handle undulating courses better than most but the severe steepness of the final climb may see him out of the running for a podium spot.

Alejandro Valverde is looking in good shape coming from behind to outsprint Gilbert on the finish of the Amstel Gold Race but perhaps the Liege-Bastogne-Liege course will suit him better and it's likely to be his big aim for the week. Team-mate Nairo Quintana may be a better bet. He's in phenomenal form and is a whippet on gradients like the Mur but whether or not he gets team leader status for this race is yet to be seen.

Philippe Gilbert would probably be my 'favourite' for the race - he looks to be coming into some form and looked good jumping away on the Cauberg last weekend. If he was coming back to his best last weekend then maybe he will be at his best tomorrow and he's a proven winner here too. BMC need something quick-sharp from their classics season but the added pressure might not favour Gilbert.

Can Dan Martin
Capitalise on Catalunya?
An interesting edition to the startlist again this year is Saxobanks Alberto Contador. Often these steep finishes don't suit the Spaniard as he doesn't seem to have the pace to stay with the likes of Rodriguez but he could make a move earlier on the climb as he did in 2010 before being caught in the run in to the finish - Quintana might also try a similar move and if they both skip away together and create a gap then they might not be seen again until the finish line.

There are plenty of others in the running here too - a Euskaltel team arrive brimful of climbers, Sky once again have Colombian firepower in the form of Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao with Jon Tiernan-Locke and Richie Porte also riding in support. Peter Sagans Cannondale team-mate Moreno Moser might be better able to sprint to the finish than the Slovakian so they are certainly not a one-trick-pony either and don't rule out Garmin-Sharp either - they arrive with Ryder Hesjedal in tow but also Dan Martin who declares himself fit and ready after a crash towards the end of Amstel, this is his favourite week of the year and the course suits his punchier climbing style too. He appears to be allergy free so far this year and with recent victory in Catalunya his confidence will be sky-high.

There is plenty going on in this race so don't let it's 'semi-classic' status put you off. So many riders come here with options and possibilities that it's impossible to predict a winner, especially with the Mur being so selective. I can certainly see Gilbert on the podium if his from stays true and he is due a result but I wouldn't count Sagan out either. I suspect we may get a surprise winner this year, maybe the likes of Dan Martin or perhaps Omega-Pharma's Michael Kwiatkowski but it's needle in a haystack stuff, just the way it should be...

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