While the Mur de Huy may be punishing for most of the ambitious riders who try to subdue its mighty slopes, it still has a few favourites. The likes of Anna van der Breggen, Alejandro Valverde, Marianne Vos and Eddy Merckx have found the key to success at the Flèche Wallonne and then returned to the Ardennes town several times. But the Mur is also targeted by a cohort of contenders who dream of joining these riders on the honour roll, even if it’s just once.
On Wednesday, Women Elite UCI World Champion Van der Breggen (Team SD Worx) and Jumbo-Visma Women Team’s Marianne Vos (three time road race UCI World Champion) - fresh off her victory in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race Ladies Edition and new leader of the UCI Women’s WorldTour -, will collectively represent 11 victories as they ride around Huy on the 24th edition of the Flèche Wallonne Féminine. In the absence of Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, who is concentrating on mountain bike, the Dutch duo will be the only former winners at the start of the seventh one-day event of the 2021 UCI Women’s WorldTour. A few hours later, the men’s peloton will start from Charleroi and head towards Huy with four former winners: 2018 UCI World Champion, the king Alejandro Valverde (winner in 2006 and from 2014 until 2017), his successor and reigning UCI World Champion Julian Alaphilippe (2018-19), the young prince Marc Hirschi (2020) and the local hero, 2012 UCI World Champion Philippe Gilbert (2011).
Listening to them, their paths to success sound straightforward on the slopes up the Mur de Huy (1.3km with an average gradient of 9.6%). “I go as fast as possible, but still leave something for the end,” Anna van der Breggen explained last autumn after her sixth consecutive win in the Flèche Wallonne Féminine. “And if the others are coming, you need to follow. Demi [Vollering] was coming, and I waited a bit until the 150-metre sign, then I knew I can go all-out.”
Valverde has described similar tactics during his reign in Huy. Who can emulate them in the women’s peloton?
After she tried to push Van der Breggen to her limits in the 2020 Flèche Wallonne Féminine, the young Demi Vollering, second behind Vos on Sunday at Amstel Gold Race Ladies Edition, joined the SD Worx powerhouse last winter. At only 24 years old, she has impressed in her two previous participations (5th n 2019, 3rd in 2020) and looks on the verge of triumphing with an impressive series of results in her few races this season: quite apart from Sunday’s podium, this season she has also finished 13th in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad-Vroumen Elite, 6th at the Strade Bianche, 5th in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and 2nd at the Brabantse Pijl dames after one of the tightest finishes imaginable.
Vollering and Van der Breggen will ride alongside the African Continental Champion Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, who has participated in every edition of the Flèche Wallonne Femmes since 2011 and made it inside the top 10 on eight occasions (2nd behind Van der Breggen in 2018, before they joined forces).
Outside of the SD Worx ranks, another Dutch champion is aiming to add her name to the list of oranje winners on the Mur de Huy. 2019 road race UCI World Champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar Team Women) also visits the race for the 10th time in her career, after sitting out of the 2020 edition to rest an injured wrist after the UCI Road World Championships held in Imola Emilia-Romagna (Italy). The last time she faced the Mur de Huy, in 2019, Van Vleuten finished on Van der Breggen’s tail after a late push, to take 2nd.
Experience and explosivity
Other seasoned riders such as former UCI World Champion and winner of the 2020 UCI Women’s WorldTour, Trek-Segafredo’s Elizabeth Deignan (2nd in 2014 and 2017; 4th in 2020), and Elisa Longo Borghini (2nd in 2013, 5th last autumn and riding at a stellar level this season) also came very close to victory in their previous attempts on the Mur de Huy, one of the most iconic places for the women’s peloton since Fabiana Luperini took victory in 1998. The Italian went on to win the race in 2001 and again in 2002, reaching a tally later matched by Nicole Cooke (2003, 2005 and 2006) and only bettered by Vos and Van der Breggen.
Canyon//SRAM Racing’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma, who has already had five top-5 finishes up the Mur de Huy (3rd in 2017), has been amongst Van der Breggen’s most consistent opponents in the punchy Classics. Amanda Spratt will bring her experience to Team BikeExchange as she embarks on her 10th participation (5th in 2018).
Younger contenders will also try to impose their explosivity. At 25 years old, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) was 2nd in last year’s Flèche Wallonne Féminine, between Van der Breggen and Vollering, and is showing very strong form this season (5th in Strade Bianche, 3rd at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda - Comune di Cittiglio, 7th in the Ronde van Vlaanderen). She will be joined by her younger teammate Marta Cavalli (aged 23), who has already finished in the top 20 at both the Flèche Wallonne Femmes and Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes, and is now enjoying a very strong Classics campaign with top-10 finishes in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (9th), Strade Bianche (8th) and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (6th).
2020 winner of the UCI Women’s WorldTour Best Youth classification, Liane Lippert (23 years old) demonstrated last autumn that she’s becoming a strong contender for the Ardennes Classics and is set to lead Team DSM’s – and German – ambitions on the Mur de Huy. That’s unless her young French teammate Juliette Labous storms to victory at only 22 years old? They’re both taking on a massive challenge in attempting to dethrone the Dutch Queens of Huy.