Fleche-Wallone used to be my favorite classic, despite the lack of distance. The finish made my legs hurt just watching: the cruelty of the finish being SO close yet almost unreachable. A war of attrition ending in a head-to-head test of suffering.
“Back in the day” it was essentially always a small group, for example 2, arriving at the base of the Huy the last time. And with the shift to pack finishes, you can see a jump, starting in 2004 when Rebellin won, in climbing speeds here. It used to be 3:10 was typical, now sub-2:50 is common and it’s never as slow as 3:00. You don’t see the agonizingly low cadence as riders fatigued from riding in a break push their oversized gears up the impossible slope, pushing threw the wall of pain to reach the top before the other guy, then collapsing just past the finish. Good stuff.
But now it’s become a virtual pack sprint. Basically the riders with sufficient near the position spin their little gears up the hill and someone wins. It’s still an exciting finish, but with the race coming down to the final kilometer every single time, it’s lost any notion of scope. As usual I’ll probably check steephill and download a video after the race. But really I've little incentive to watch more than 3 km.
A new climb was added this year, only 5.5 km from the finish: Côte de Cherave. It will be interesting to see if that changes the dynamic of the finale, or if the pack arrives together at the final climb anyway, as they did at Milan-San Remo and as they did at Amstel Gold?
It's a stiff one, maxing out as around 13%. This has got to affect the finish. If you're caught out here, it's going to be a hard time getting to the base of Huy at the front. This will favor strong teams who can survive this climb with decent numbers. It could well save the race from a decade of mediocrity.
In contrast, Mur de Huy is clearly tougher, as it should be being the finish:
For this race the key question is: did Kwiakowski ride a tactical finish on the Cauberg, exploiting Michael Matthews marking Gilbert? Or was he simply unable to follow? If the latter he’s not likely to win here. But if the former he’s an excellent pick. I think if he'd been able to follow Gilbert he would have, and so I think he's missing what it takes to win here. Indeed the only one legitimately able to follow Gilbert was Matthews, and he's not racing here. Valverde said he could have followed but got boxed it.
Last year it was Valverde over Martin followed by Kiwatkowski, then Bauke Mollema and Tom Jelte Slagter. All of the top three from last year have been strong this year. In 2013 it was Daniel Moreno over Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur, with Martin fourth. Practice makes perfect, and I've got to believe Daniel Martin will only benefit from that extra climb, and will get his timing perfect on Huy this year. He's my pick.
Gilbert tends to be too impulsive. Last year he got boxed in on Huy, which is a major traffic jam. But his attack at Amstel this year was impressive. Since he pulled away from Kwiatkowski at Amstel, it's hard to put Kwiatkowski ahead of him here.
I'm going to go with the following. It gets a bit hard to pick an exact order from this crowd but I've got to do it.
- Daniel Martin
The "candyass" rule says the pick needs to be perfect, starting from 1st, or you lose. So this is it: my top 5. I nail the stack or else.