The Ardennes dishes up a midweek classic in the shape of the 81st edition of La Flèche Wallonne, placed neatly between last weekend’s Amstel Gold and the upcoming Liége – Bastogne – Liége on April 23rd. Established as a happy hunting ground for puncheur extraordinaire Alejandro Valverde in recent years, having won in 2014, 2015 & 2016; La Flèche Wallonne prides itself on an explosive finish atop the Mur de Huy to crown the day’s victor. Starting in Binche, the race travels a total of 200.5km en route to the finale in Huy, navigating the narrow roads of the Ardennes which induce stress for all teams as they seek to keep their leaders out of trouble. Several climbs will need to be tackled along the way, including two passes of the Mur de Huy itself, though it is the final attempt which is expected to prove decisive once again. With a gradient reaching 25% at times, this brutal challenge cannot be won as a fluke result, it takes a perfect balance of tactical nous and potent acceleration to attack at the ideal moment in order to win La Flèche Wallonne.
Alejandro Valverde has made this race his own during the previous three seasons, proving unable to be caught once he accelerates hard upon the steepest section of the Mur de Huy. His early season form has been very impressive in 2017, making the prospect of going toe to toe with the Spanish veteran even more intimidating for his anticipated rivals. His Movistar team are now extremely experienced at positioning Valverde ideally at the base of the final climb, but it is his own prowess at timing his attack perfectly which has delivered him three consecutive victories thus far. For many, it seems impossible to see any other man standing atop the podium once again.
Sergio Henao looked extremely impressive while working for teammate Michal Kwiatkowski during Amstel Gold the other day and should be allowed a greater degree of freedom to lead the charge here today. The Colombian has an encouraging record at the Ardennes classics, possessing the skills necessary to attack aggressively on these ludicrously steep slopes and perhaps one of only a handful genuinely able to threaten the indomitable Valverde. Henao looks to be hitting form at the perfect time to challenge for La Flèche Wallonne and has the strength of a well equipped Sky team to slingshot him into the opening section of the Mur de Huy in pursuit of victory.
Dan Martin has become accustomed to watching the silhouette of Alejandro Valverde cross the line ahead of him in recent years at La Flèche Wallonne and has finished in the top four in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Much like Valverde, the Irishman has enjoyed a successful start to the season thus far, hopefully keeping him on par with his familiar foe in 2017. His greatest weakness has been knowing when to finally make his race winning move at this race, often coming up short of the line as a result of attacking too hard too soon, but there can only be so many times he makes this mistake without learning from it. Martin abandoned Amstel Gold, though never circled that as a serious target and it may in fact be a great indication of how assured he is of his form heading into La Flèche Wallonne right now.
Michael Albasini is a rider who seems to muster a strong performance at this race each year, though rarely mounts a serious challenge for the day’s win. His third place finish at Amstel Gold is a strong indication of his form currently, no doubt convincing Orica – Scott more than ever to back the Swiss rider with everything they have in hope of taking victory. Albasini is unlikely to have the sheer pace of riders such as Dan Martin and Alejandro Valverde, but could be the man most likely to benefit from a tactical standoff between the big favourites.
Warren Barguil has been flying under the radar during 2017 thus far, but there may be some concern that this has in fact been due to a lack of form. He was lively during Amstel Gold, appearing as one of the strongest members of the chasing group, now potentially arriving in ideal form to compete well at La Flèche Wallonne. Though he might be a lithe bodied climber, Barguil does have a strong burst of speed on these steep ramps which stretch beyond 20% and could be one most likely to breakaway solo in order to take the win.
Michael Woods continues to impress since making his transition from running several years ago and finished a creditable twelfth place during last year’s edition. There is no doubt that he has the physical strength to challenge the bigger names, possessing a strong uphill sprint when required, but may find that a lack of good positioning leaves him with too much ground to make up once the fireworks erupt.
Other interesting riders who could all feature in the day’s final top ten are Robert Gesink, Lilian Calmejane, Tom-Jelte Slagter and Diego Ulissi.
1st Sergio Henao 2nd Alejandro Valverde 3rd Dan Martin