Milan - Sanremo 2018 Race Preview

Rapido Guide: Milano – Sanremo 2018

Course:

Not much to shout about in regards to 2018’s course for Milano – Sanremo, as it is an identical affair to last year’s, maintaining its reputation as one of the least tinkered with monuments in recent seasons. Though clocking in at 291km of racing (300km if you include the neutral zone), it will once again be a day which is unlikely to see any noteworthy action before the peloton as easily passed the 200km marker. The triumvirate of Capo Mele, Capo Cervo and Capo Berta will provide the day’s contenders with the first real indication as to whether their legs feel favourable or not with less than 60km remaining. After this comes the historic double of the Cipressa and the Poggio, the descent off the latter reaching level ground once again with only a little over 2km of racing to go. Though we may have to wait late in the day to see it, with so few opportunities to break the race apart, there should be another great curtain raising battle to this year’s monuments at Milano – Sanremo.

Milan - Sanremo 2018 Race Preview

Contenders:

Peter Sagan enters most of the calendar’s one day races as the favourite, though does not possess the best record in the classics or monuments when considering how long he has been the sport’s greatest active rider. He came close to taking the win last year and has already stated that he will approach things differently this time in pursuit of the win, perhaps choosing to keep his powder dry and allow others to really push the tempo. Whatever the plan is, there is no doubt he shall be a major protagonist in the final decisive kilometres, where it is tough to imagine him losing if part of any group which turns the last corner onto the Via Roma.

Arnaud Démare won this race in surprising fashion a couple of years ago, but given his recent form, it would be far less of a shock to win it a second time than the first. He copes well with this type of arduous racing and is one of the few who can still turn in close to his best sprint after well over 250km of racing. The team at his disposal is extremely strong in support of the French national champion, focused almost entirely upon controlling the race and manoeuvering Démare into a race winning position. Despite having already won here, as a not particularly flashy rider, it is easy to overlook his talents; his rivals would be foolish to do the same.

Sonny Colbrelli has maintained a great record at Milano – Sanremo over the years and 2018 looks to be one of his best build ups to the big day of all. His recent victory upon Hatta Dam at the Dubai Tour proved his great strength when roads head skywards, which will no doubt be useful late in the day here. He would do best to allow other bigger names to close down the attacks when necessary, as previous years have seen the Italian use up too much energy before the finish line is in sight.

Michal Kwiatkowski is the defending champion and will feel relaxed heading into the day, with nothing to prove and no real pressure to repeat his win at a notoriously tough to predict monument. Regardless, he will be a likely face amongst those hoping to split the race apart and avoid a significant bunch sprint deciding the winner this year. This no doubt that means attacking hard over the Poggio, which given his success last year, will be interesting to see who reacts first to such a potentially dangerous move.

Elia Viviani is the purest sprinter with the most realistic chance of surviving the final quarter of racing with a potent turn of pace still at his disposal. Having enjoyed a brilliant start to life at Quick Step, the Italian ace is looking in sparkling form and more confident than ever in his abilities to reach the top of the sport. With a talented selection of teammates by his side, Viviani shall be well protected, allowing him to focus on exiting the final turn of the day in a race winning position.

Others to watch for are Alexander Kristoff, Caleb Ewan, Julian AlaphilppeMatteo Trentin and Magnus Cort Nielsen.

Outcome:

1st Arnaud Démare 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Sonny Colbrelli

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Rapido Guide – Tour of Oman 2018 – Stage 5

Rapido Guide – Tour of Oman 2018 – Stage 2

Course:

French rider Bryan Coquard took a surprise victory on the opening day of this year’s Tour of Oman, but with plenty of climbing and an uphill finish on Stage 2, the sprinters will have to work hard to fight for another bunch kick. The day’s ride from Sultan Qaboos University to Al Bustan totals 167km and features four categorised climbs along the way; the last of which appears around 5km from the finish. It is the wind which is likely to prove most decisive here, previously dictating whether an elite group forms under intense strain or a block headwind keeps the bunch together for a reduced sprint, either way it will prove influential once again. The final kilometres are bound to be hectic if the race begins to fracture, as riders attempt to calculate their best chances of winning, from either a late move or reduced bunch kick.

Tour of Oman 2018 - Stage 2

Contenders:

Fabio Felline fits this stage particularly well, and if already possessing decent form as believed, then he  will have several options as to how best he can approach the day with eyes on the win. Strong enough to join the breakaway if required, or fast enough to dominate a sprint of likely protagonists, Felline will have a tough time choosing which approach is best. Regardless, days tailored to his strengths like this are not that frequent throughout the season and there is no doubt he shall aim to make the most of it.

Greg Van Avermaet is gearing up for another big push at the Spring classics, which means testing the waters at some point during these early season forays into potential race winning form. The Belgian icon suits this day, but is another who could benefit equally from being part of a late move or keeping his powder dry for a small group sprinting to the line. We have seen how tough he is to beat for several seasons now when on top form, and even if he is only nearing this, he could emerge as the dominant force in the final moments of Stage 2.

Søren Kragh Andersen will favour this terrain and has previously secured a stage win at this race, hinting at what his condition is likely to be once again this year. One of the strongest riders here in a head to head charge to the line, the Dane will want to be ditched by plenty of other riders on the final climb of the day and he is bound to find allies hard to come by as a result. A strong team performance here will do him wonders, and if he can make the cut, then the sprint finish could be made to look a breeze by the youngster.

Nathan Haas is a rider the bunch would be foolish to allow an advantage late in the day, as on a course which plays to his strengths, he could prove extremely to difficult to pull back before the line. Though he did not manage to reach his ambitions at the Tour Down Under, he was certainly one of the strongest riders there and he will have carried this across to Oman with hopes of converting it into victory on this occasion. If the wind can do him a favour and thin the ranks out, Haas is a contender likely to benefit well  from it.

If the race does remain together for the most part, whether due to strong team management or a block headwind, the sprinters who are most capable of staying in touch to take the win are Nacer BouhanniGiacomo Nizzolo and Bryan Coquard.

Outcome:

1st Fabio Felline 2nd Søren Kragh Andersen 3rd Giacomo Nizzolo

Tour Down Under - 2018 - Stage Six 6 Preview

Rapido Guide – Tour Down Under 2018 – Stage 1

Course:

A familiarly styled course to many which have opened the Tour Down Under in recent years, Stage 1 takes the riders on a 145km jaunt from Port Adelaide to Lyndoch, featuring a smattering of rolling terrain early in the day on a stage anticipated to finish in a bunch sprint. The sole recognised ascent of the day is the typically Antipodean titled Humbug Scrub, a 6.3 km rise which average a gradient of 4%, appearing just before the 40km marker. With little to upset the sprinters’ teams beyond Humbug Scrub on Stage 1, it should simply be a case of sitting back and watching the fist serious duel amongst the sprinters in 2018.

Tour Down Under - 2018 - Stage One 1 Preview

Contenders:

Caleb Ewan has cemented his place as one of the fastest riders in the bunch since breaking through a couple of seasons ago and could leave his native race with a good haul of stage wins this week. He has previously taken two stage finishes of the Tour Down Under in Lyndoch, so evidently finds this finale to be to his liking for one reason or another. He might not feel that his best leadout team his here to support him, but with his blistering turn of pace, the likelihood is that Ewan shall make it a hatrick of wins here.

Elia Viviani appears to be in strong form since making his off-season move to Quick Step and could emerge as the rider who pushes Ewan most for the day’s honours. Another without a perfect set of riders to back him, he will need to rely upon his guile and nous in order to find the best wheel to follow late in the day, seeking to produce a late charge to the line which edges out his Australian rival.

André Greipel often lays down a decent marker of early season form at the Tour Down Under and will be focused on repeating this once again in 2018. Not as potent over short distances as his rivals mentioned above, the German powerhouse is still a tough man to catch once he gets up to speed however and will be expected to podium on Stage 1. His greatest advantage is the leadout train which Lotto Soudal have equipped him with in Australia and the power it possesses to diminish any advantages held over the ‘Gorilla’ by Ewan or Viviani; a perfect performance from his team could make Greipel impossible to beat.

Sam Bennett should be the focus for Bora Hansgroe in the sprints this week, but recent illness has meant Peter Sagan stepped into the breach for the People’s Choice Classic a few days ago, which he promptly won due to being, well, Peter Sagan. The three time world champion looks likely to attempt the same today, but with much faster rivals eagerly eyeing up this opening stage, only another brilliant showing from his teammates will manage to snatch a second unexpected sprint victory for Sagan in a week.

Phil Bauhaus became a familiar name in the top ten placings at WorldTour races last season and the expectation will be that he pushes on once again in 2018, so could prove a danger throughout the racing at the Tour Down Under. Chris Lawless certainly has the talent to podium at the very least here, though is somewhat hamstrung by a relatively limited Team Sky leadout train, in regards to both experience and organisation

Outcome:

1st Caleb Ewan 2nd Elia Viviani 3rd André Greipel

Le Tour de France 2017

Le Tour de France 2017 – Stage 9 Preview

Course:

Those wishing to sustain a serious campaign upon the general classification will need to ignite their ambitions with serious determination on Stage 9’s gruelling course. Starting in Nantua, the day begins immediately uphill and completes two categorised climbs within the first 11km of racing. A total of 181.5km will be traversed en route to Chambéry and a brutal trio of HC climbs will provide the first true insight as to who is struggling to find their best in the mountains this year.

First of the three major ascents to be ridden is the HC Col de la Biche, a 10.5km long climb which sustains a draining 9% average gradient, though features steeper sections along the way. The subsequent descent offers no true recovery opportunity, leading immediately to the base of the HC Grand Colombier, a historic feature of Le Tour de France for many years, the riders will be familiar with its average gradient of 9.9% and total 8.5km distance. A rapid descent then places the bunch back down into the valley, taking in the day’s intermediate sprint and the Category 4 Côte de Jongieux, before the showdown on the day’s concluding climb.

Mont du Chat is a particularly brutal HC challenge, lasting for 8.7km and tasking the peloton with ascending a mind numbing average gradient of 10.3%; ramps of 15% are also present on the way to the summit. There is no chance of hiding poor form on Stage 9 after such attritional climbing, as even the descent from the final climb of the day is an equalling gruelling affair, with tight hairpin bends being negotiated through dense tree lines. The frontrunners at the end of it all will have approximately 14km to stay at the head of affairs in order to contest the win in Chambéry at the end of the day.


Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage 9 Preview

Contenders:

Romain Bardet knows that he will have to make these outrageously tough days in the mountains count for something early on at this year’s Tour de France, as having to close any substantial lead which Chris Froome may establish heading into the first rest day will be the start of a huge challenge. There is a feeling amongst the riders that Froome is perhaps not as strong as expected in this opening week, hoping instead to peak for the final run of Pyrenean stages instead. This should be an opportunity too great to resist if true and Romain Bardet is the best equipped rider to take advantage of it. He enjoys these steep climbs, but most crucially, is not afraid of descending at eye watering speeds in pursuit of victory. If he attacks over the top of the Mont du Chat, then he could end up soloing all the way to victory in Chambéry.

Dan Martin will expect to be one of the fastest riders present in an elite group which forms as a result of the day’s final climb. Without the eternal thorn in the Irishman’s side at the race now (Alejandro Valverde), he can focus on saving himself for the final run into the finish line, where a strong sprinting performance from him is unlikely to be matched by those who have also made the cut. However, that in itself is the greatest issue for Martin, as an explosive race may jettison him before the final ascent due to the ferocity of the general classification battle.

Fabio Aru cannot be ignored on a stage like today’s, the reigning Italian road race champion having a real penchant for these horrendously steep climbs and could choose to combine them with his aggressive style of racing in order to put immense pressure on the likes of Chris Froome and Richie Porte. He seems the one most likely to not stick to the generally agreed race plan amongst the major names, potentially going on the offensive earlier than many anticipate to see who is most interested in following.

Thibaut Pinot should prove an enthusiastic presence on Stage 9, as the Frenchman will need a strong showing if he is to have a realistic chance of obtaining the polka dot jersey or a stage win at this year’s race. Having arrived off the back of a tough Giro d’Italia, his form has perhaps dipped, though Pinot has never raced particularly strongly in the opening uphill stages of Le Tour de France in recent years. If he does not prove to be overly fatigued, then this should arrive at the ideal time for him to stretch his legs and push on for a jersey and stage double.

Rigoberto Uran has the turn of pace required to win from a small group after the strains and stresses of Stage 9, but needs to be on his toes in order to ensure he manages to join the race winning move. Surprisingly quiet during yesterday’s infinite exchanges and skirmishes to shape the breakaway, Uran has perhaps chosen to keep his powder dry especially for today instead. He is no longer the climber which once delivered him podium placings at the Giro d’Italia, though is capable of producing his best when a chance like this appears on his radar. The tactic for Uran shall be to join the right move, conserve as much energy as possible and look to regroup over the Mont du Chat and finish his rivals off in a sprint to the line.

Chris Froome needs to put down a marker soon, as rumblings persist that he is not quite on his best form right now. There shall be no need for him to be the aggressor today, allowing him to challenge his rivals to light the race up if the wish to take the maillot jaune from upon his shoulders. However, we have seen previously that he likes to prove a point at the earliest opportunity possible, meaning it would come as no surprise to see him attack on the final climb in order to contend for the stage win.

Richie Porte and BMC are almost anxious at the prospect of not being able to land a blow on Chris Froome already, despite there being very few opportunities to achieve precisely that in the opening week. Perhaps not as strong as expected entering the race, Porte has the credentials to challenge for the win and cause a stir amongst the general classification, but needs to ride clever to achieve this. A great time trial rider, he should know how to pace his efforts through the day’s major climbs, before once again calling upon these talents to solo his way to victory in the final 14km of flat terrain.

Others worth considering are Pierre RollandPrimoz RoglicJarlinson Pantano  and Louis Meintjes.

Outcome:

1st Romain Bardet 2nd Fabio Aru 3rd Chris Froome

Paris - Roubaix 2017 Race Preview

Paris – Roubaix – Race Preview 2017

Course:

The season’s cobbled campaign reaches its crescendo at Paris – Roubaix once again, the preceding weeks of gruelling Spring races in Northern Europe having given us a glimpse of who is mostly likely to survive another ‘Sunday In Hell’. Stretching a total of 257km from the start at Compiègne – Choisy-Au-Bac to the historic finale at the Roubaix velodrome. Tackling 29 official sectors en route to the finish, riders will not only require the strength and determination to succeed, but also the light touch of luck to steer clear of danger throughout the maelstrom. The riders are gifted 100km to prepare themselves for the barrage of challenges, hitting their first cobbled sector after the century marker and finding little in the way of relief until the finish line is crossed or they climb off their bike. As ever, much anxiety will be heaped upon the riders’ passage through the crucial sectors of Care Four de l’Arbre, Mons-en-Pevele and Arenberg forest; the fight for position entering these being some of the most intense riding during the day. Of all the classics which form the monuments in cycling, Paris – Roubaix is perhaps the one which sees the greatest number of star riders lose out through bad luck rather than poor form, meaning an upset is always on the cards at this iconic race. Regardless, whomever is crowned 2017’s champion will have achieved it through no fluke, as every rider who enters the Roubaix velodrome does so gripped by exhaustion. There is no ‘easy’ way to win Paris – Roubaix.

Paris - Roubaix 2017 Race Preview Route

Contenders:

John Degenkolb was unable to defend his title last year due to a training accident which almost cost him a finger and will now be extremely motivated to compensate for his previous absence by performing strongly once again. The German seems built to dominate this race and it is easy to imagine that this 2017 edition may have been poised to complete a hat-trick of wins had he been able to contest the monument last year. His immense strength has seen him as one of the best riders behind the likes of Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet during the early semi-classics this year, but on many of those occasions it was the dreaded hellingen which prevented him from challenging for the win. Today features no such cobbled climbs, making it a levelling factor which plays into his hands. It will take plenty of effort to detach Degenkolb, should the frontrunners fail to achieve this, then nobody will be faster than the German at the end of this race as they enter Roubaix.

Peter Sagan saw his ambitions of defending his title at Ronde van Vlaanderen wiped out by a rogue coat, causing himself Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet to crash upon the cobblestones. His classics campaign has not been as easy as many expected, Sagan having to cope with negative riding and limited team support compared to teams such as Quick – Step and Trek – Segafredo. Though the results may not immediately demonstrate it, Sagan has been indomitable for much of these semi-classic races and will believe himself strong enough to compensate for a lack of team strength once the race becomes a ‘man vs man’ battle. He is not always the fastest at the end of a tough race such as this, so will need to focus upon conserving energy and allow Quick – Step to take control of affairs for the day.

Oliver Naesen has risen rapidly during the Spring to become one of the few riders capable of matching the likes of Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet. He was in a fantastic position at the Tour of Flanders, but was unfortunate enough to be taken out by a spectator alongside Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet before he could make any moves for victory. Naesen is an aggressive rider who will not wish to simply sit on the wheel and wait to be ridden off, capable of attacking solo from range, he is also talented enough to be a danger in a sprint. However, those most likely to match him are all faster than he is on paper, but nothing is guaranteed once Paris – Roubaix reaches its conclusion. The course suits Naesen’s skills extremely well, and if he rides a cunning enough race, he will be the most likely to cause an upset.

Greg Van Avermaet has become the classics specialists which many had long expected him to become, dominating 2017’s opening classics with apparent ease and the only man able to put Peter Sagan to the sword when given the chance. The Belgian is not as well suited to the rigours of Paris – Roubaix however, as much of Avermaet’s riding is built around his immense acceleration on some of Europe’s toughest cobbled climbs. He is in the form of his life right now, so he cannot be dismissed simply because the terrain is not perfect, instead it is likely that Avermaet will look to follow the wheel of favourites such as John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan, expecting to then dispatch them with ease in a sprint for the line.

Alexander Kristoff is not currently in the same monstrous form as that which delivered him immense success in 2015, yet there are signs to suggest he is once again on the rise to the top. Kristoff does not possess an eye-catching history at Paris – Roubaix, which is surprising when considering his physical attributes, though he certainly has what it takes to succeed if he commits everything to it. His ability to suffer through the hardest of days in the saddle is well documented, but given the encouraging weather forecast for the day, this year’s edition is unlikely to be the attritional affair which would see Kristoff become favourite.

Tom Boonen bids farewell to life as a professional cyclist with one final appearance at Paris – Roubaix, a race which he has conquered on four occasions, confirming himself as one of the greatest Belgians to have ridden this race. Boonen will be inspired to deliver a famous farewell to the sport, aiming to claim victory for a fifth time and become its most successful competitor in history. Quick – Step are once again the strongest team in this one day classic, but their mix of potential victors means Boonen will not be afforded total support. Plenty needs to go in his favour throughout the day to arrive at Roubaix with the leading riders, but should he do so, there is no doubt that he has the gritty determination to lift the cobblestone one last time.

Others who are anticipated to animate the race and challenge for the win are Niki TerpstraZdenek StybarLuke DurbridgeIan StannardLuke Rowe and Florian Sénéchal.

Outcome:

1st Oliver Naesen 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Tom Boonen

La_Flèche_Wallonne_Preview

Rapido Guide – La Flèche Wallonne

Course:

Part two of this week’s triptych of Ardennes classics sees La Flèche Wallonne and its dramatic finale of the Mur De Huy return once again to bridge the gap between Amstel Gold and Liége-Bastogne-Liége. Despite just falling short of a typically classics sized 200km (196km to be precise), the repeated ascents of this region’s short, sharp hills is a draining affair as teams do their utmost to tee up a hectic melee upon the Mur de Huy’s gruelling slopes; maxing out at 25% towards the top.

La_Flèche_Wallonne_Preview

Contenders:

Alejandro Valverde will be many pundits favourite for another victory at La Flèche Wallonne, potentially making it three consecutive titles in addition to his first win in 2006. The Movistar leader has had an impressive start to the season, though his preparation has altered this year as a result of the dawning realisation that he may in fact have a shot at winning the Giro d’Italia next month. Regardless of his unusual preparation on this occasion, Valverde is a mastermind at anticipating his rivals ahead of the finish and such experience often compensates for a few lacking percentages of fitness.

Dan Martin has always performed well at this race, despite normally focusing upon the preceding Amstel Gold and following Liége-Bastogne-Liége instead; 2016 appears to be the first time he has targeted this race on purpose. His performance at Pais Vasco was far from encouraging, but it seems he rode this simply to keep the legs turning and perhaps it is best to avoid reading too much into his showing. Martin is a true specialist upon these steep gradients, so combining this with a real focus upon performing well here, the Irishman should emerge as a contender.

Much like Martin, Sergio Henao has everything needed to win this race and has already come close to achieving this goal in 2013. In 2016 Henao’s condition has been very impressive, only losing the Pais Vasco title in the final day’s time trial to Alberto Contador off the back of an extremely strong week of racing. He fits the mould of a Flèche Wallonne champion convincingly and will be one of the frontrunners during the last charge to the line.

Julian Alaphilippe is returning well from illness and seems destined to enjoy a successful career at the Ardennes, though this year’s races may come too soon for a victory and a podium would be equally impressive given recent sickness. It always seems difficult gauging the chances of Tom Jelte-Slagter ahead of big one day races such as these, but it is worth keeping him in mind on a course which has already seen him finish in the top ten twice.

Outcome:

1st Dan Martin 2nd Sergio Henao 3rd Alejandro Valverde

Fléche-Wallonne-Spokenforks-Preview-2015

The Ardennes – Flèche Wallonne Preview

Flèche Wallonne comes sandwiched between Amstel Gold and Liége-Bastogne-Liége during this week of hectic and stressful racing through the Ardennes region. It takes more than a gutsy ride of sheer will power to win Flèche Wallonne, this race sees a small group of specialist riders earmarked to duke out the finish atop the infamous Mur de Huy. It is on these ruthless slopes where the real contenders are soon separated from the pretenders as they wrestle against the gradient and fight for position in order to make the final selection in this unique race. Placed anywhere else in the calendar would likely have made Flèche Wallonne a classic, but being bookended by the seemingly more prestigious Amstel Gold and the monument that is Liége-Bastogne-Liége has seen its profile diminished somewhat. Riders will hope to capitalise upon the previous weekend’s efforts and the distracting allure of the following Sunday’s eye-catching monument, as a way to cause a stir on this herculean finish and win against the odds.

Course:

From the start in Waremme, the peloton are tasked with completing a total of 205.5km in order to reach the summit of the race deciding Mur de Huy. Attention is suitably focused upon the Mur de Huy when planning the best method of attack in order to win here, the riders will have several opportunities to gauge the climb as it features twice on the race profile before acting as the backdrop to the race’s outcome. Like many one day races, the riding opens with several kilometres of gently rolling terrain as a warm up to the chaotic battle which is bound to ensue once the climbs begin getting ticked off by the pack. Only one climb is present during the first 92km of racing(Cote des 36 Tournants), allowing a breakaway to establish at the front of affairs before pressure begins ramping up as the remaining 9 climbs start approaching thick and fast.

Fléche-Wallonne-Spokenforks-Preview-2015

 

The true race opens up with the 1km Cote de Bellaire (avg 6.3%) at the 92km marker, followed swiftly by the longer Cote de Bohisseau which as a 5.5% average gradient over its 2.4km of ascending. By this point in the race, some within the peloton might believe they are gaining a level of insight as to their condition for the race; this will soon be tested as they hit the first ascent of the Mur de Huy after 118km of racing. If the legs are feeling ropey from the opening half of this race on the first pass of the Mur de Huy, the chances of them coming round to contest the finish is extremely unlikely. Acting as a mid-race reconnaissance, this opportunity will refresh the memory of the more experienced riders and see race favourites begin visualising their schemes for the finale.

Turning away from Huy onto an almost 6okm circuit will take the peloton on an excursion to discover three further climbs which they are expected to get the beating of en route to a possible Ardennes victory. First comes Cote d’Ereffe (2.1km, avg 5%), before heading into familiar territory with another pass of Cote de Bellaire and Cote de Bohisseau as they tick the mileage over to just shy of 160km at this point; with the second ascent of the Mur de Huy after 176.5km to be completed.

The remaining 29km is composed of only three climbs, including the final ascent of the decisive Mur de Huy. Though the favourites are still likely to be in contention at this point of the race, a clear amount of thinning will have occurred amongst the peloton by now; possibly leaving major names isolated from their teammates. Cote d’Ereffe is the first of the afore mentioned three climbs which remain, just over two kilometres long and averaging out at a gradient of 5%, it does not standout as an aspect which will impact upon the race greatly, but you never can tell in a one day race such as this. With only 5.5km remaining the new addition of the Cote de Cherave could certainly cause problems for a peloton intent on setting the finish up for a sprint amongst the puncheurs. The climb itself is 1.3km long and sees an increase in steepness compared to its predecessor, this time possessing an average gradient of 8.1% which needs surviving before the last climb of the Mur de Huy. Perhaps it is the subsequent descent from the Cote de Cherave which will be more dangerous than the ascent itself, offering any escapees a solid springboard in their attempts to rob the favourites of the finish they desire.

As we have already seen at Amstel Gold during the finale upon the Cauberg, the imperative for the major players will be staying safe and maintaing a strong position in order to defend or attack from. By now, the peloton will be all too aware of how hard life gets beyond the Mur de Huy’s average of 9.6%; in fact the win will be fought for on ramps hitting 25%. It is with this in mind that it becomes obvious how underrated a champion of Flèche Wallonne can be compared to the other races in the Ardennes this week. To win this at the death will require a canny rider to conserve energy and be smart enough to find daylight before striking for home with a monumental effort over the gruelling 25% section up to the line.

Contenders:

Once again Alejandro Valverde enters the day as race favourite after a great showing at Amstel Gold where he found only Michal Kwiatkowski in finer form than himself this year. As mentioned when analysing his hopes of taking Amstel Gold last week, Valverde has not come into this week of races with the level of victories many expected him to have by now; many of his missed opportunities thus far have been the result of misfortune rather than fitness however. He looked calm when boxed in at the base of the Cauberg on Sunday and smoothly worked his way into a better position before striking from the decisive group to take the young Pole to the line in the sprint. The uphill finish which maxes out at 25% suits Valverde nicely, a man who has form when it comes to securing one day and grand tour victories over similar terrain; let us not forget that he is the defending champion here. He has clearly raised a few eyebrows with his condition in the first race of the Ardennes and should be the man to beat on the Mur de Huy.

Last year saw Dan Martin beaten into second place by a deadly Valverde and there is no clear reason to suggest he cannot be the man to push the Spaniard to the line once again. He recorded a solid 15th placing in Amstel Gold and has the ability to flourish on this terrain as already witnessed at Flèche Wallonne last year. Not only will he like the finish, but Martin has a an enviable record in one day races and classics which will reenforce his claims here. Martin’s history at this race in particular is impressive, having previously finished 6th, 4th and 2nd in his previous three consecutive appearances. If he can stay out of trouble and find the right wheel to follow on the Mur de Huy, he has everything in his toolbox to dismantle the chnaes of Valverde and add another major one day race to his palmares.

Katusha arrive here with two previous winners in their ranks, the Spanish pairing of Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno; champions in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Rodriguez did not have a great time of it at Amstel Gold, finishing in the middle of the pack despite looking good in the latter stages of the race. His form at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco is an encouraging sign for him in the face of a disappointing Amstel Gold result and clearly copes with this finish as a former winner. Like his compatriot Valverde, Rodriguez seems to function best on the hellish gradients of a finale which leaves many withering in the wake of his big efforts. Such an ability has really only seen Valverde as his main rival in this type of uphill finish and will be well worth watching ahead of the final climb up the Mur de Huy. Katusha’s second former winner is Daniel Moreno, a man who currently appears bereft of the form which previously delivered him the title here. Given this factor, it will be expected of Moreno to help leader Rodriguez with his tilt at the win, but he will remain a positive backup plan if required. He goes well on this terrain and is certainly one of the faster finishers if he does not burn out too soon on the climb to the finish line.

Second to Moreno when he won in 2013 was Colombian Sergio Henao, the punchy finisher is riding as the best hope for Team Sky at Fléche Wallonne this year. He clearly has the ability to perform well upon the Mur de Huy, but possibly lacks the nous required to launch a race winning move from the right position. The Colombian looked far from his best during Amstel Gold, but this occasion suits him much better and he will benefit from a shorter and less stressful race for the most part. Timing will be everything for him; get it right and he could certainly podium at the minimum. Chris Froome is an interesting presence amongst the peloton at this race for Sky too, a dark horse who could step up and take leadership if required; no doubt causing a big stir amongst the major names if so. Though he lacks the ability to finish as fast as the likes of Valverde, Rodriguez or Martin on these 25% ramps; he could attack much earlier on the Mur de Huy in order to compensate. We have witnessed the incredible tempo Froome can set on an incline and his spiked efforts have the ability to open a large gap rapidly. If he did choose to attempt this, a gap which is too great to close on such a sharp finish would only require Froome to hold out until the line greets him atop the Mur de Huy.

Michal Kwiatkowski struck gold last weekend and finally took his first Ardennes win after having demonstrated amazing consistency at the races over the last couple of years. He stayed in contention during Amstel Gold’s final climb of the Cauberg and benefited from the regrouping which occurred after a hesitant attack by Philippe Gilbert and Michael Matthews. Though the Polish rider does have the attributes of a puncheur style rider, the finish of the Mur de Huy is probably a step too far for him; at this point in his career at least. Last year he managed a very impressive third place behind Valverde and Martin and a 5th place in 2013 too. Sunday’s performance would suggest that form is returning to Kwaitkowski and he should be part of the diminished group which begins the Mur de Huy for the last time, but he is probably destined to be distanced once 25% gradients hit home.

Yet another former winner which lines up at Flèche Wallonne is Ardennes specialist Philippe Gilbert, but he comes far down this preview for good reason. When he did win this race in 2011 it was a shock to both pundit and rider, as Flèche Wallonne was viewed as the race he was least likely to add to his palmares in this region. Obviously 2011 was incredible for the Belgian, as he won the Ardennes’ triple crown and went onwards to become World Champion upon the same Cauberg which also secured him Amstel Gold. In 2015 it seems a hard task to argue in favour of Gilbert taking his second win here, as the field offers a depth of talent which suits the concluding terrain much better than the Belgian rider.

A young face no doubt eager to make his presence felt here will be British rider Simon Yates who has been handed joint leadership (with Michael Albasini) in order to have a stab at this race. Vuelta al Pais Vasco proved that Yates is in fine condition heading into this race and probably should have walked away with a win on stage 4. His issue could be hesitating when he really needs to commit to a move wholeheartedly, waiting continuously for the ‘perfect moment’ can be an infinite affair, but if Yates gives everyone both barrels from a good position on the Mur de Huy it will take a strong effort to reel him back.

Bauke Mollema has a consistent recored here, finishing in the top ten or thereabouts on several occasions already. So far this year encouraging signs have been apparent when riding Tirreno-Adriatico and Vuelta al Pais Vasco, but he is yet to crown these showings with a win. He suits this race reasonably well and appears to be the best bet for Trek Factory Racing at this edition, but will find it very difficult to get the beating of the faster finishing men.

Outsiders are plentiful at this edition of the Flèche Wallone and one such man who could cause an upset is Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang. He was in a late move with Greg Van Avermaet during Amstel Gold which failed due to the Belgian’s presence, but the Dane walked away adamant that he could have taken it to the line had he not found Avermaet on his wheel. He evidently believes himself to be in good condition, but will struggle for freedom in a team which includes Vincenzo Nibal, Michele Scarponi and Rein Taaramäe to name a few. If he attacks early on the penultimate climb with approximately 5km remaining, he definitely has the guts to push such an effort to the limit in search of Ardennes glory.

One which few will tout as a contender is Rafael Valls, the Lampre-Merida rider who is likely to find his presence here at the disposal of team leader Rui Costa. Costa will take command after a solid finish at Amstel Gold, which is sure to have a detrimental effect upon the chances of the Spanish rider making a move. However, Valls has looked strong this season thus far, particularly on sharp uphill finishes which include winning atop Green Mountain in Oman and mixing it with the best climbers at Paris-Nice. Should he be allowed to get away by leader Costa, the peloton might regret letting him slip off the front late on in the race when realising they are then tasked with catching him upon the Mur de Huy.

Outcome: 1st Dan Martin 2nd Alejandro Valverde 3rd Bauke Mollema