Alejandro Valverde and Anna van der Breggen, the reigning road race UCI World Champions, have both won one particular race on multiple occasions: the Flèche Wallonne, on top of the gruelling Mur de Huy.
Valverde considers himself “lucky” that uphill finishes have become a trend in the era in which he’s been able to express his cycling skills. The “Chemin des Chapelles” – the real name of the climb that leads to the
finishing line of the Flèche Wallonne – is the signature feature of the event, and its inception goes as far back as 1936. However the 1.3km “Mur” (wall) and its gradients of up to 26% (average 9%) have only been the finishing
location since 1985, so it’s not the place where Eddy Merckx won the race three times. (By the way, this was the first pro race contested by “the Cannibal”, in 1965; he attacked prior to pulling out but returned to win it two years
The last rider to have claimed the Flèche Wallonne in any manner other than an uphill battle in a big bunch was Igor Astarloa in 2003. Since then more than half of the editions have been won by two absolute specialists of hilltop sprints: Davide
Rebellin (2004, 2007, 2009) and Valverde (2006, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017).
“I believe the Mur de Huy perfectly suits my characteristics,” says the Spaniard. “If I’m well-positioned and if I’m at the front with 200 metres to go, it’s hard to beat me. But there are always riders able to take
up the challenge. Rebellin and [Philippe] Gilbert have been my main rivals up there in the past and when Julian Alaphilippe came second to me in 2015, I realised I had a new adversary in my favourite Classic.”
Valverde’s worst result at the Flèche Wallonne was 46th in 2012 [he was 40th in his first attempt in 2005] but Alaphilippe has never finished the race lower than 2nd position. He was second to Valverde again
in 2016, didn’t compete in 2017 due to a knee injury and eventually outclassed the master last year. Valverde, who’s turning 39 between Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, has only won one race since he became
the UCI World Champion in Innsbruck-Tirol last September – compared to previous years when he had already bagged several victories – stage 3 of the UAE Tour atop Jebel Hafeet. But his placings at Milan-Sanremo (7th) and Tour
of Flanders (8th) indicate that he’s still competitive in the biggest Classics.
Indeed two World Champions could well win in Huy. Van der Breggen is a candidate to equal both Valverde and her compatriot Marianne Vos (winner in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013) for the number of Flèche Wallonne victories: and if she takes her fifth
win this year, she’d become the first and only rider to have won the race five times in a row.
“I’m not exactly chasing records,” said the Dutchwoman. “I just start every race to try and win it, regardless of the history of the race or whoever I’m racing against. I’d love to win but I’d be equally happy
if one of my teammates wins.”
Also racing for Boels-Dolmans Cyclingteam will be Denmark’s Annika Langvad who came second at Strade Bianche and fourth at Amstel Gold Race Ladies, along with the 23-year-old winner of Le Samyn des Dames, Jip van den Bos.
Van der Breggen is the only women cyclist to have made the triple of Amstel Gold Race Ladies, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a feat she achieved in 2017. She finished 13th in the Amstel Gold Race Ladies won by
Kasia Niewiadoma on Sunday, which is a much higher ranking than the 38th place that preceded her back-to-back victories in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège one year ago.
Highlights of the race in 2018 :