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PEZ Preview: Flèche Wallonne ’17
Flèche Wallonne Preview: The Ardennes Classics are upon us. Amstel had a worthy winner in Philippe Gilbert, but he will be missing Wednesday's Flèche Wallonne and Liège. Not to worry, plenty more top-men in the running. Sam Larner takes a look at the history, course and riders of the Wallonne Classic in the PEZ Preview.

Huy - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -   illustration - sfeer - illustratie mur de Huy pictured during Fleche Wallonne 2016 - photo Dion Kerckhoffs/Cor Vos © 2016

Fleche-Wallonne is a 204.5km race, which is dominated by the 1.3km Mur de Huy. The wall of Huy, as it’s translated, is climbed three times during the race and the final time is one of the greatest two and a half minutes of action in the sporting calendar. The colorfully clad peloton snake up the climb, which seems almost impossible for a bike to conquer, with the challengers fading away until one remains to ride alone over the line to victory.

Waalse Pijl, Huy, Belgie, 23-4-2003 Igor Astarloa. Foto Cor Vos ©2003
Igor Astarloa - 2003 solo winner

In reality, as great as that finalé is, like the Champs Élysées in the Tour de France, you know that the finish will be the same year after year after year. In fact, a breakaway hasn’t triumphed at Fleche since 2003, when that year’s World Champion Igor Astarloa snuck away. That’s a whole four years before the last Champs Elysees breakaway victory, like death and taxes, the annual slow motion sprint up the Mur is a constant in this ever-changing world.

Huy - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -  Christopher Froome (Team Sky) after his crash injured   pictured during la Fleche Wallone 2015 Elite - photo Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos © 2015
Maybe good memories for Chris Froome on the Côte de Cherave, but bad memories at Flèche Wallonne

However, since 2015, the organizers have tried to shake up the inevitable by adding the Cote de Cherave, as used during the stage in the 2015 Tour de France when Chris Froome stepped into yellow for the first time in that race. The Cherave is used twice, on the two final laps, and comes just 5km prior to the finish, it’s 1.3km, so the same distance as the Mur but a notch or too more gradual. It’s yet to have the desired outcome in its two appearances, but it’s the perfect launchpad for a late attack.

Joop Zoetemelk is in de Waalse Pijl gedemareerd en gaat solo winnen in Verviers, foto Cor Vos ©
One of the few solo winners - Joop Zoetemelk in 1976

Aside from the Mur and the Cherave, the Fleche-Wallonne route is a relatively simple one. The riders set off from Binche, a town to the west of Charleroi and head east towards Huy. The first three quarters of the race take the riders through the Belgian countryside and over the climbs of the Cote d’Amay and Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet. At the 147km mark, the peloton will tackle the Mur for the first time and embark on the two finishing loops, which include the Cote d’Ereffe climb, as well as the two we’ve talked about above.

Despite the newly designed course, Flèche still isn’t hard enough to chip away at the peloton and a mass lung-bursting, lactic acid crippling grind to the line is still the most likely outcome.

Previous Race Winners
There have been 80 editions of the Fleche Wallonne so far and 38 of them have been won by a home rider. The two Belgians with the most wins are, have a guess, yes Eddy Merckx. The GOAT won the race in 1967, 1970, and 1972, however, he wasn’t the first three time winner from the home nation, Tour de France stage winner Marcel Kint won three consecutive races in 1943, 1944, and 1945, he became not only the first three time winner but also the first multiple winner.

Three-time winner - Marcel Kint

If you’d asked me for a pick back between 1936 and 1947, I would’ve told you to go for a Belgian – they won every single race in that time period; that home field advantage was ended by former Paris-Nice winner Fermo Camellini in 1948. However, that wasn’t the end of Belgium’s domination, they won every race between 1953-1962 and 1967-1975. Despite the early promise, the last forty years have been lean – there have been just six victories. In the last ten years, Philippe Gilbert is the only home rider to have raised his arms atop the Mur.

Huy - Hoei - Belgie - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - wereldbeker - worldcup - coupe du monde - Waalse Pijl - Fleche Wallone 2011 - Philippe Gilbert (Team Omega Pharma - Lotto) - foto Cor Vos ©2011
Philippe Gilbert back in 2011 - No repeat in 2017

If anything, the recent dominating nation has been Spain, a Spaniard has won every single edition since 2012, the last three wins, including one in 2006, have propelled Alejandro Valverde to four wins and the most victories in the race. Should you find yourself in a cycling pub quiz; Joaquin Rodriguez and Dani Moreno are the other two Spanish riders who have won since 2012.

Huy - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spain / Team Katusha - Katuscha - Canyon) pictured during  Flèche Wallone - Waalse Pijl 2013 for elite  - photo VKJBPN/Cor Vos © 2013
Dani Moreno - part of the Spanish Flèche Wallonne domination

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar/Spain)
– Can the aging warrior take a historic fourth victory in a row, and five overall? Well, if the season so far is anything to go by, that would be the most likely outcome. The four time winner will wait and wait, and wait some more before launching a devastating sprint over the top. That’s the plan anyway.

Valverde is the big favorite for Wednesday - 5th win and 4 in-a-row?

Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step-Floors/Belgium) – Sadley Gilbert is out of the remaining Ardennes Classics. The 2011 winner of Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège will not line-up for this year’s edition. Winner of Amstel Gold Race, where he made history with his victory, Philippe Gilbert will stop his Spring Classics campaign as consequence of his crash in Sunday’s race. Following the victory ceremony and the press conference, the Belgian Champion went to the hospital for medical examinations, as he still felt pain on his right side, consequence of the crash in which he was involved during the race.

At the hospital, where he was joined by the Quick-Step Floors doctor, he was diagnosed with a minor right kidney tear, which requires a week of complete recovery, meaning that Philippe will be forced to skip Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. "When I crashed, I felt pain, but once I remounted and continued the race things became better and better and the pain disappeared. Unfortunately, after the finish, the lower back pain returned, so together with the team doctor I decided to go to the hospital for a check-up. Fortunately, it’s nothing serious, and if everything goes well, in a week I will start training again."

Oudenaarde - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Philippe GILBERT (Belgium / Team Quick Step - Floors) pictured during the of Flanders Classics UCI WorldTour 101st Ronde van Vlaanderen cycling race with start in Antwerpen and finish in Oudenaarde on April 02, 2017 - foto LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2017
No Flèche Wallonne for the Belgian champion

Daniel Martin (Quick-Step Floors/Ireland) – The Irishman is somewhere between a GC contender and a hilly classics contender, a best of 9th in the Tour de France but victories in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy suggest he might be advised to focus on the latter. He has pedigree in this race though, 2nd in 2014, 3rd last year and 4th when the Tour de France finished on the hill in 2015. He’ll certainly be near the front.

Dan Martin - Quick-Step leader for the Ardennes

Adam Yates (Orica-Scott/Great Britain) – The British pocket rocket should be suited to Fleche-Wallonne, but he’s only finished it once – in 97th place. He was a minute back when the Tour finished here as well, it’s not a great pedigree but he’s on this list by talent alone.

Larciano - Italy  - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Adam Yates (GBR - ORICA - Scott) - Richard Carapaz (ECU - Movistar)†- Rigoberto Uran (COL - Cannondale - Drapac)  pictured during GP Larciano 2017 from Larciano to Larciano 199,2 km -  - GP Larciano 2017 - Larciano - Larciano 199,2 km - 05/03/2017 - foto LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2017
Adam Yates has the explosive power for the Mur de Huy

Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb/France) – At 25, this is a big year for Barguil. He’s an obligatory inclusion on any Tour de France favorites list but he still only has two Vuelta stage wins in 2013 to his name. A 9th place finish last year, followed by 6th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, prove he’s well suited to this type of racing, a podium is a definite possibility.

Morzine - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Warren Barguil (FRA-Giant-Alpecin) pictured during stage 20 of the 2016 Tour de France from Megeve to Morzine, 146.00 km - photo Miwa iijima/Cor Vos © 2016
Time for Barguil to show his talent

Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R-La Mondiale/France) – The Frenchman is an outstanding talent, especially on the steepest climbs. In 2015 he won on the climb to Mur-de-Bretagne and took a third place when they climbed the Mur-de-Huy, earlier that year he took 6th in the Fleche Wallonne. All positive signs for a first French victory since 1997.

Vuillermoz could be a French winner

Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac/Canada)
– 12th May 2015, that was the last time a Cannondale rider won a World Tour race. It’s been a long drought, with just 19 victories in that time. Realistically, Woods won’t be the person to break that run, but he’s a supremely talented rider once the road cranks up.

Bourg-de-Péage - France   - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport -  Michael WOODS (Canada / Cannondale Drapac Professsional Cycling Team)  pictured during stage 5 of Paris - Nice UCI World Tour from Quincié-en-Beaujolais to Bourg-de-Péage, 199.50 km - foto: LB/RB/Cor Vos © 2017
Michael Woods - A man to look for in the finalé

Louis Meintjes (UAE Team Emirates/South Africa) – Liege-Bastogne-Liege probably represents Meintjes best chance of success, but if he makes it to the foot of the Mur he will be mixing it with the likes of Valverde and Gilbert at the finish.

Adelaide - Australia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Louis MEINTJES (South Africa / Team Abu Dhabi) pictured during the People’s Choice Classic 2017 in Adelaide, Australia on jan 15 - photo Dion Kerckhoffs/Cor Vos © 2017
The South African, Louis Meintjes, has the climbing ability

Sergio Luis Henao (Team Sky/Colombia) – The 2017 Paris-Nice winner is carrying some good form into the race and will probably benefit from being team leader. There’s only ever been two non-European winners; Lance Armstrong, remember him? And Cadel Evans. Henao could definitely become the first South American victor on Wednesday.

Colombian history - Sergio Henao

Samuel Sanchez (BMC/Spain) – The 39 year old Basque rider is one of the most well liked in the peloton and a victory on the Mur de Huy, on what may be his final season, would be well celebrated. Sanchez has four top 10s in his 10 Flèche Wallonne so far, including a 6th last year.

Lo Port (Tortosa) - Spain - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -  Tejay VAN GARDEREN (USA / BMC Racing Team) - Samuel SANCHEZ GONZALEZ (Spain / BMC Racing Team) - Jarlinson PANTANO GOMEZ (Columbia / Team Trek Segafredo)  pictured during stage - 5 of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2017 - photo Miwa Iijma/Cor Vos © 2017
Has Samu recovered from his crash in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco?

# Stay tuned to PEZ for the Flèche Wallonne race report on Wednesday and more Flèche news in EUROTRASH Thursday. For live action go to HERE. #

Valverde on the Huy:


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