Wednesday the 23rd of April brings the fourth round of the World Cup, the Fleche Wallonne – and being the first round that expressly favours the climbers, it promises to shake up the rankings.
The route has changed a little from 2012 but remains highly challenging: the riders will complete two 63.5km laps both starting and ending at the legendary Mur de Huy, which will serve to take some riders out of contention on the first ascent and then to select a winner on the second. With 10 fast descending kilometres to get to the Mur for the second time, though, it might not be the climbers who are first to attack the hill.
12km – Côte d’Ereffe, 2.2km long, 5.9%
31km – Côte de Bellaire, 1km long, 6.8%
38.5km – Côte de Bohisseau, 1.3km long, 7.6%
41.5km – Côte de Bousalle, 1.7km long, 4.9%
52km – Côte d’Ahin, 2.1km long, 5.9%
63km – Mur de Huy, 1.3km long, 9.3%
75.5km – Côte d’Ereffe, 2.2km long, 5.9%
95km – Côte de Bellaire, 1km long, 6.8%
102km – Côte de Bohisseau, 1.3km long, 7.6%
105.5km – Côte de Bousalle, 1.7km long, 4.9%
116km – Côte d’Ahin, 2.1km long, 5.9%
127km – Mur de Huy, 1.3kmlong, 9.3%
As far as many people are concerned, the rider to watch in this race is World Champion Marianne Vos of Rabobank-Liv, in her second race since taking an extended break following the cyclo cross season (during which she took the World Championship in that discipline, too). The Dutchwoman, who turns 27 next month, has made this race her own over the last few years by winning no fewer than five of the editions since 2007, including last year – when she showed an admirable ability to keep her cool by remaining polite and graceful towards a TV interviewer who evidently hadn’t done his homework and asked her how it felt to win for the first time. Vos is not a pure climber, but has a remarkable ability to adapt herself to seemingly any racing environment – while she can’t keep up with the specialists on the steepest sections, she won’t be far behind and is always ready to grab back significant time once she’s over the top and able to put her supreme bike-handling skills to use. Having missed the first three rounds, she’s got a lot of catching up to do if she wants to win the Cup this year – but for Vos anything is possible, even though she says she won’t be at 100% and will ride to support new team mate Anna van der Breggen.
Vos sometimes seems unbeatable and is undoubtedly one of the greatest riders cycling has ever seen, but she hasn’t had it all her own way at the Fleche: in 2012 she finished 4” behind Evelyn Stevens and in 2010 she was 22” behind winner Emma Pooley. Pooley, aged 31 and riding for the Lotto-Belisol team, is also returning to competitive cycling after taking time out to complete her PhD – and she is, notably, one of only a tiny handful of world-class climbers produced by Britain as well as being one of a tiny number worldwide with the necessary endurance to remain near the front throughout the entire parcours, which stands her in good stead for a race with 12 difficult climbs including two ascents of the insanely difficult Mur de Huy. What’s more, unlike many climbers she doesn’t fear the descents and has won races with her fast descending skills, so larger and heaver riders may find they simply don’t get a chance to get away from her before she zips away on the final ascent of the Mur where her diminutive size gives her a serious advantage (note that the gradient listed for the Mur, 9.3%, is an average. Get your line wrong at the steepest part and you’re dealing with 26% at one point).
Pooley’s not the only Brit: Lizzie Armitstead, who is currently leading the World Cup rankings with 320 points to Emma Johansson’s 240, is riding with her Boels-Dolmans squad. Lizzie can hold her own on the climbs, but she’s by no means a climber – this is not the race for her and, while her 80-point advantage over Johansson is impressive, her lead looks perilous with 100 points on offer for the winner (along with €1128 – quite frankly pitiful when compared to the €16,000 for the winner of the men’s Fleche). British-registered Wiggle-Honda have three British riders, Elinor Barker, Laura Trott and Dani King, all there to work for leader Linda Villumsen rather than to go after victory themselves. Estado de Mexico-Faren have a British rider in the shape of Lucy Martin (team leader Fabiana Luperini, incidentally, won the first edition of the Fleche Wallonne Feminine back in 1998).
The biggest threats to all of them are likely to be Emma Johansson and Elisa Longo Borghini, and they’re very big threats indeed. Longo Borghini (Hitec Products), though by far the youngest of the favourites at just 22, has revealed herself to be a remarkable Classics rider with a series of victories and high placings and is getting better ever season. It’s worth remembering that when Vos attacked with 200m to go last year, Longo Borghini was one of only two riders able to stay with her and took second place. The other was Ashleigh Moolman, who was then riding for Lotto-Belisol but is now with Hitec – Moolman is a highly talented climber who will this year assist Longo-Borghini by putting serious pressure on the team’s rivals. Johansson (Orica-AIS) has, over the last few years, risen to become the only rider capable of consistently challenging Vos – like Vos, she’s a superb all-rounder rather than a specialist and has the skills needed to ride fast on the cobbles; she hasn’t won this race before but, currently ranked best rider in the world by the UCI, she’s definitely got what it takes.
So: Vos, Pooley, Longo Borghini and Johansson head-to-head on the Mur de Huy? Sounds good, doesn’t it?