The howling coastal gales of the Netherlands certainly played their part in shaping the day’s racing on Stage 2 of this year’s Tour de France, but a sprint was still the fashion in which the day’s winner was crowned. The German André Greipel took the first road stage of this tour and subsequently makes his debut as a wearer of the Green Jersey; however attention was focused greater upon Etixx-QuickStep after the race. Having forced decisive splits in the crosswinds, the Belgian outfit found themselves staring at the possibility of a stage win and yellow jersey double, but the end of the day found them without either. The leadout for Mark Cavendish may well have cooked themselves when pushing to maintain their gap to the maillot jaune, but it was the defeat of the Manxman himself which acted as a double-edged disappointment for the teame; a late surge from Fabian Cancellara taking third place and a time bonus ahead of the Brit to leapfrog Tony Martin on the general classification simultaneously. It seems that Stage 2 can act as another chapter in what is becoming an almanac of tactical flops by Etixx-Quickstep this year. Perhaps their support shall turn to that of Michal Kwiatkowski on Stage 3, a day culminating upon Flèche Wallone’s famous Mur de Huy climb, an ascent which provides a chance for the young Pole to win.
As if the Tour de France was not already a great enough spectacle in its own right, the organisers this year seem to have created a miniature run of classics during the first week. For those who found a safe passage through the tumultuous ride to Zeeland, they will now strike upon a familiar foe in the mould of one of the Ardennes’ famous Spring races Flèche Wallonne. The debut inclusion of this icon of cycling is great for fans of the sport and even more so for the classic styled puncheurs who seldom find opportunities at France’s national tour to take a victory so tailored to their talents.
An inspection of the day’s route indicates that this is not quite the carbon copy of this Ardennes’ classic that many have expected, though the finale itself is exactly the same as that of 2015’s Flèche Wallonne. The big difference on Stage 3 is the total distance, the Tour’s version of this race clocking in at a more modest 159.5km; 46km less than this Spring’s edition of the race. It all begins in Antwerp where an opening 30km of flat terrain will allow the peloton to get up to speed and gauge their fatigue from the previous day’s hardships. Though the profile shows a few gradual lumps and bumps after the early period of simple riding, the real race will be lit up around the 105km marker as the categorised climbs approach on the horizon and the battle for positioning becomes a priority ahead of the conclusion.
A Category 4 ascent opens their account for the day, the 2.4km Cote de Bohisseau and its 5.5% gradient likely to be familiar to those who rode Flèche Wallonne earlier in the year; as will all of the day’s categorised climbs. Rolling roads follow which lead into the day’s intermediate sprint where it is likely we shall see Peter Sagan strutting his stuff if he deems it a worthwhile effort. Next comes another Category 4, this time the 2.1km Cote d’Ereffe (avg 5%), after which funnels the peloton down to the town of Huy and out to contest the penultimate climb ahead of the concluding Mur de Huy. The third and final Category 4 climb arrives with less than 10km remaining of the day’s racing, the Cote de Cherave sure to have an impact upon the outcome with its 8.1% average gradient playing out upon tight cobbled streets; its short 1.3km length a small upside for the peloton.
Tempo will be high as those with eyes on the victory seek to stay in contention at the front of the group as they sweep through tricky streets and negotiate the usual blend of Ardennes road furniture. At 1.3km from home the infamous Mur de Huy begins twisting the thumbscrews upon the day’s favourites, its soft start a trick to lure those naive enough to go hard too soon. A miscalculation here will be punished with no mercy once the road hits its maximum gradient of 19%, a brutal test which has crowned a worthy champion year after year.
Alejandro Valverde is the clear favourite to win Stage 3 having won Flèche Wallonne in 2008, 2014 & 2015; demonstrating a clear affinity for pacing the harsh climb perfectly. His ability to always position himself neatly ahead of the Mur de Huy is an enviable skill, the contrast here will be the lack of total team support which he usually finds afforded to him in the normal running of this infamous climb. Valverde has not had the same solid build up which has delivered him three prestigious wins on the Mur de Huy in his previous appearances here, but there is no doubt he is a major contender on familiar territory once again. A greater depth of puncheurs and climbers means his rivals are not as clear cut as usual when riding here; so great are those able to mount a serious charge that Valverde could possibly be swamped late on. If the Spanish road race champion finds daylight with around 300m left of the Mur de Huy, he should pocket yet another victory on a climb he has made his own as of late.
Irishman Dan Martin has proven to be a consistent rider at Flèche Wallonne and he will be part of the frontrunners which decide this stage; if he avoids the misfortune which haunts him so frequently that is. He is clearly impassioned to make a statement here, primarily due to abandoning this year’s running of the race after a silly crash brought down several riders and sent him out of the running. Martin’s recovery has been encouraging despite the short time afforded to him and a solid Dauphine certainly strengthens his claims to winning on a course tailor made for him. Assuming his team works hard to place him decisively ahead of the finale, Martin has a good chance of winning, but will perhaps need to make a move earlier than expected due to faster finishing rivals.
Spain have another former champion of the Mur de Huy in the shape of Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, coming here off the back of an encouraging Dauphine much like Dan Martin. Over the years, Rodriguez has built a reputation for winning upon these brutally steep finishing slopes and will no doubt be present in the shake up here. Though his prowess has not necessarily been forthcoming as of late on similar finales, this is a brilliant opportunity for the 36 year old puncheur to claim a major win ahead of what must be an impending retirement.
A similarly consistent rider on this terrain, specifically the Mur de Huy, is Orica-GreenEDGE’s Michael Albasini who has notched up seven top ten results over the years at Flèche Wallonne. The Swiss rider rounded out the podium this year when finishing behind a flying Alejandro Valverde and the surprise star of 2015’s Ardennes’ races Julian Alaphilippe. The broader spectrum of contenders is certainly a negative for Albasini, but the real positive for him is the diminished length compared to the usual running which brings him over the Mur de Huy. If he can stay fresh and safe during the ratcheting maelstrom towards the end of the day, Alabsini could finally turn his consistency on this climb into a satisfying victory.
Third in 2014 was the blossoming Michal Kwiatkowski, winner of the most aggressive rider prize at the end of Stage 2’s blast through the Dutch coast’s testing gales. There is little doubt that the reigning World Champion is in great condition at the start of this year’s Tour de France, spending a large amount of time driving hard in the name of Mark Cavendish and doing his utmost to set his team leader up for the win. In recent seasons there is little which the young Pole seems unable to turn his hand too, finally taking an Ardennes victory after good showings this year when edging out Alejandro Valverde for the Amstel Gold title. Etixx-QuickStep shot themselves in the foot somewhat on Stage 2, but Kwiatkowski could prove the perfect man to remedy this at the first time of asking.
Tom Dumoulin has a fantastic chance to place himself in yellow by the end of Stage 3, but it is Bauke Mollema and Wilco Kelderman who could both stake a claim to stage honours on day three. The former having secured several top ten finishes in previous editions of Fléche Wallonne, while Kelderman managed a tenth place finish on only his second ever meeting with the Mur de Huy earlier this year.
British interest could be represented by Chris Froome, Simon Yates and Peter Kennaugh. Froome is perhaps the most suited of the general classification contenders to seriously challenge here, his high cadence attacks often deadly on such short, sharp climbs. The young Yates is surely saving himself for the first volley of major mountains and is likely to be here in order to support Albasini, but if the opportunity to strike out in his own right arises, the Orica-GreenEDGE rider could deliver a shock win. Peter Kennaugh recently defend his national road race title on the cobbled Michaelgate climb, which although considerably shorter in total length, contains similar gradients to that of the Mur de Huy at its maximum. He suffered in the previous day’s crosswinds, but if he his given permission to attack, Kennaugh could sail away unexpectedly to take an early victory for Sky.
Beyond those mentioned above are a variety of riders who could all go towards animating the race, either in its latter stages, or as part of a breakaway; Julian Arredondo, Tony Gallopin, Warren Barguil and Romain Bardet all worth watching as the peloton turn onto the final climb.
Cyclists are notorious for replicating past successes on the same terrain, making Alejandro Valverde the man to back as he attempts to find further glory upon the Mur de Huy. Positioning will be more crucial than ever at a grand tour version of this finale, though Valverde clearly has the skills to compensate for this and with his potent acceleration should win. Others appear in slightly better condition than Valverde, both Joaquim Rodriguez and Dan Martin have the current strength and history to perform well here on Stage 3 and cannot be overlooked in regards to the win. Their biggest advantage compared to Valverde is that they are likely to have an entire team at their disposal in order to place them well ahead of the finale; Movistar on the other hand will be protecting Nairo Quintana as expected. Though the Fléche Wallonne should be a strong indicator of the victor on Stage 3, the topsy turvy world of a grand tour could certainly throw this out the window, paving the way for a real outsider to stand atop the Mur de Huy as champion on day three of Le Tour de France.
1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Dan Martin 3rd Joqauim Rodriguez
Outsiders: Michael Albasini & Michal Kwiatkowski