– Contributed by Peter Easton of Velo Classic Tours –
On the lower slopes of the Mur, the riders resemble foot soldiers, marching to seize Li Tchestia, the 1818 fortress that dominates the city, until the weaker are discarded and left behind, sacrificed as the effort of the assault rapidly deteriorates into a chaotic trampling of survival. Peering down the Mur, the bobbing heads of the leaders that first break the horizon seem to be lifted from below by the crescendo of cheering that ignites the climb.
Their arched bodies, wrestling over their bikes as if trying to escape the strangling grip of a python, for a moment appear as if they’re rising, being pushed from below, pulled from above, the perspective downhill skewing and suspending their forward movement. The upheaval is staggering, and belies Emerson’s musings. While the beauty here, perhaps, is in the eye of the beholder, the cruelty of the Mur de Huy is brandished in sinister ways.
It’s no secret that gauging the difficulty of a climb is best done by riding it. With the Mur de Huy however, one pass of the peloton slaps you in the face, the beautifully assembled and graceful procession of the riders suddenly an exploding kaleidoscope, its shards of glass cutting into the marquee that is unnecessarily painted HUY repetitively for 1200 meters.
For most hilltop finishes, there brings a decreased sense of climax, as the riders initial appearance in the distance has them either sprinting for victory or reveling in the fatal blow delivered further down the mountain, arms now raised in celebration with victory dripping from their open fingers. For some this brings that moment of arrival to life with a vividness a televised transmission cannot capture. For others, its standing against a barricade, eyes glued to the large screen, anticipating that moment when the first rider will appear, his face contorted and muscles flexed, a sight of human struggle that expresses the heart’s desire to do more than the body is willing. For those who lost, and those who challenged and came up short, beauty can appear unbearable. Staring at defeat in the hollow darkness of a hotel room they could well be driven to despair, having been offered for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that could stretch across their careers forever before disappearing for at least another year.
Translated from French, La Flиche Wallonne means Wallonian Arrow. In Dutch, it’s known as Waalse Pijl. But regardless of the language or translation, La Flиche Wallonne was established as, and historically was always, a Belgian race, symbolic of the success carved from the rugged Ardennes landscape that once solidified the region as an industrial power in the late 19th century. As the Spring Classics makes its final push to the end of April, 2011 will see the 75th edition of the Wallonian Arrow, and is again a race that dares the riders to conquer the geography of the Meuse River Valley. And while the target for victory is placed squarely on the villainous Mur de Huy, there is a dual identity to the race that can be considered both a blessing and a curse.
The varying geography of the region is strikingly apparent, and the course seems to snake its way into every joint in the small villages that have fortified themselves into the hills rising above the river as it continually descends to, and rises above, the Meuse. Much of the Ardennes is covered in dense forests, and the region is typified by steep-sided valleys carved by the fast-flowing Meuse River, slicing its way through the river valley like a giant saw blade from the mines, has left steep sided hills, the southern side of which creates the major geographical challenge of the race. Above the valley to the south of the river, the geography is less harsh, with an open plateau of rolling terrain through dairy farms and arable farms, which uses ploughed fields to grow crops of wheat, barley and oats.
The steep, densely forested hills are used in the timber industries, and abandoned mines from the former mining stronghold litter the deeper recesses of the region. The patchwork of farms, sitting on plains that span the broad expanse that meets rivers and hills, yields the livelihood of the province. Modern life works the fields, and as one rides down the steeply sided slopes plunging towards the river, chateaux appear in the forest, plumes of smoke a reminder of the material riches gathered from the land, the swollen moats preventing not intruders but ghosts from a haunted past that has become derelict with time. Bright yellow fills the open fields, of newly blossoming rapeseed, while the grey and muted colors of the river valley line the hillsides stretching above, the soot covered brick echoing its abandoned past.
There is a sense of suffocation in the lifelessness that lines the river, a stark reminder of an abandoned lifestyle, a feeling that is alleviated as one claws through the forests, past the chateaux and into the brightly lit fields that direct a lacelike network of roads, some visible on the horizon, the confluence broken by a dying sun and a slow moving tractor.
The most demanding part of the course comes on the 99 kilometers in total which begins, in effect, with what it ends with- the Mur de Huy.
A 2010 course revision saw the larger loop of 100 kilometers and the smaller 30 kilometers loop switched, so the final two ascents of the Mur are now 70 kilometers closer. However, moving the two ascents of the Mur closer in distance, I feel, actually negates the difficulty of the larger loop. The consistent difficulty of the hills and the technical skills required to negotiate some of the roads leading into Huy are more significant with five kilometers left, rather than 35. The very element that defines the race-the Mur- is exactly that which cripples it.
As a Belgian semi-classic, La Flиche Wallonne maintains a very distinct aura, and is highly regarded among Belgian cycling fans as an extremely important and prestigious race to win. However, I raise the question if La Flиche-Wallonne still defines Belgium, and specifically Wallonia, or like its coal and steel industry, is it slowly decaying, if not in the eyes of the fans, but the riders? Belgium riders won 12 of the first 13 races from 1936-49 then 11 of 15 editions between 1953 and 1964. This impressive dominance was followed with a string of nine in a row starting in 1967. Since 1976, only four Belgian riders have won La Flиche Wallonne five times, and none since 2002. In all they have won 37 of the race’s 74 editions.
Meanwhile the Italians, who adopted Wallonia as an Italian outpost and slaved in the same mines and factories, have won eleven times since 1990 and 18 times total. As a comparison, For the Tour of Flanders, over the same time period, Belgian riders have won 48 times since 1936, and 20 times since 1976. Comparing it to the former midweek semi-classic Gent-Wevelgem over the same period, and 46 Belgian riders have claimed victory, with twelve coming since 1976. Certainly a more international peloton has added to the variables of national victories, but the ever diminishing return at La Flиche Wallonne for Belgium leaves it with a seemingly enviable, yet sufferable, position, and image.
Snaking along the main road that is a part of the industrial backbone of the region, a few kilometers from Huy, the spirits of the great Belgian riders who have succeeded here whispering in the ears of the contenders, the ghosts of a decimated industry howling louder than the wind, their apparitions pressed against the glass and swirling through the empty factories. The pride that once adorned the top step of the podium of this race remains, though it has wearily shifted from external pressures that have propped it up, and subsequently let it alone teeter as it attempts to stand on its own. Slowly ascending the Mur, and any number of analogies come to mind. The nervous tension is replaced with the push of personal accomplishment. There are times though when it is a greater pursuit, the effort symbolizing a much grander history, a past filled with an illustrious history, a thriving culture, an industrious region.
Regardless of the number of times in a day, or the position within the race, for the riders who scale the Mur de Huy, the whites of their eyes tell a different story than one may see on the surface. Before pulling off her hat trick in 2009, I asked former world champion Marianne Vos to describe the Mur in one word. “Ha, in one word. It is….evil.” From the top looking down the Mur, one can take comfort in the poetic words of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir “the pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Peter and Lisa Easton are experts on everything Spring Classics and beyond. Catch up with them on the road with Velo Classic Tours and one of their eleven itineraries to the Classics. Visit VeloClassic.com for more information.