Words by Nick Bull
Watching Chris Boardman pulling ridiculously long turns during his unsuccessful breakaway attempt at Flèche Wallonne 21 years ago is my oldest and, to this day, one of the most vivid memories I have from the Belgian Classic.
Watching the race a few hours after it happened, I can recall my grandfather saying something like “he’s either naïve or he’s stupid” as Boardman gave breakaway companion Raimondas Rumsas what appeared to be a relatively easy ride throughout their ill-fated bid for glory.
In the Briton’s case, it transpired that the 175-kilometre breakaway was actually useful, a training exercise for his Hour Record attempt later that year. But my relative’s description of Boardman arguably remains applicable when it comes to Flèche, especially for any male rider attacking anywhere before the 200 metres to go marker on the Mur de Huy. It is 18 years since the men’s race was last won by a breakaway winner – Saeco’s Igor Astarloa. Unlike, say, Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix, where energy conservation is oft-cited as a key factor in the deciding the outcome, we always hear – and often see – that Flèche is about positioning in the final couple of kilometres and the timing of any acceleration on its steep finishing climb. Ignoring the terrain, that description makes the race sound like a sleepy, flat, first-week Grand Tour stage. It’s a race that does very little for me and many of my peers, at least until the unofficial World Hill-Climb Championship begins. However, many riders still seem to love it. Two-time winner Julian Alaphilippe has called it “a race close to my heart since my [first] participation.” Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, runner-up in 2020, believes it is an “epic race.” She added: “You don’t win it by coincidence – you win it because you were the strongest rider. It [Mur de Huy] is a mega, mega climb. Everybody knows it’s a death climb but I guess you have to have a love-hate relationship with it.”
Anna van der Breggen has a less contradictory association with the Mur – “it’s a climb I really like,” she said last year – having won La Flèche Wallonne Féminine for a record sixth time in a row. While her unbeaten run appears to be under threat owing to a recent illness, half of the Dutchwoman’s victories in the race were anything but copies of the formulaic and predictable men’s event. In her first three wins in the race (2015, 2016 and 2017), she used the Côte de Cherave, ironically introduced to spice up the men’s event, as her launchpad.
But, take away these and Evelyn Stevens’ fine tactical victory in 2012, and what are we left with from the race’s last 15 years? Where’s the Mathew Hayman, Roubaix-style, against-all-odds victory? Or an equivalent of Ellen van Dijk’s almighty 27-kilometre solo win at Flanders seven years ago, when Rabo-Liv couldn’t close her attack down with four riders in the chase? Nothing in the last decade and a half has come close to the drama of Vincenzo Nibali attacking on the Poggio and holding off the sprinters, as he did in Sanremo three years ago, that’s for sure. We seek intrigue from cycling, arguably more so in one-day races than Grand Tours. “Why is Kasper Asgreen happy to take Mathieu van der Poel to a sprint finish?” we asked ourselves at the start of April during the Tour of Flanders. Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race had us (justifiably) questioning why Elisa Longo Borghini wasn’t riding with Kasia Niewiadoma. Sometimes our assumptions are wrong, which I can live with. But, when it comes to Flèche Wallonne, the script very rarely poses these questions.
Of course, Flèche is far from being all bad. The battle for position on the approach to the Mur, followed by the gradual whittling down of the peloton on it, is must-see racing. Because of its long-standing use in the race, the TV production of the finish is normally excellent, not only in capturing the slow-motion sprint, but also showing how steep the climb is. Its roll of honour includes Grand Tour winners, world champions and, er, Dani Moreno, yet it is also easy to remember those who got their tactics wrong and didn’t win: Cadel Evans in 2008, Joaquim Rodríguez in 2010 and 2011, Marianne Vos in 2012 and Dan Martin in 2017. Somewhat belatedly, but better late than never, live coverage of the women’s race was introduced in 2020.
So, what could be done to improve the finish of Flèche? The seemingly obvious answer is extending the race by a kilometre, shifting the finish back onto the N66 road that is already used as part of its finishing circuit. This false flat section would almost certainly change the dynamic of the race; it’s also what Thomas De Gendt advocated in 2017. “The race organisers should have the guts to move the line further on,” he said. “That would make this Classic more than just a sprint uphill.” Sunday’s Amstel Gold seemingly validates his point: Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma were the strongest riders on the Cauberg. However, they finished eighth and 10th respectively after being caught by a chasing group on the slightly downhill approach to the line.
I’ll admit this is where I’m conflicted. Do we want really another Amstel Gold-style race, especially in the same week? After the finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège was moved away from its uphill drag onto the Rue Jean Jaurès in Ans two years ago, don’t the explosive climbers deserve at least one finish to a Classic that suits them? That only Philippe Gilbert (2011) and van der Breggen (2018) have claimed the Ardennes triple in recent years hints at three nuanced events. Speaking in 2017, after Alejandro Valverde won a fourth-consecutive edition of the race, Martin disagreed with the idea of amending the finish. “I think the Mur is definitely an art to get right – I just haven’t mastered it yet,” he said. “I don’t think they should change the race so one guy doesn’t win. This is the one race that really has a lot of character and it has its trademark. We’ve seen in years before that races lose their identity when they change too much.” He has a point. Could ASO, the race’s organiser, really be trusted with such a responsibility, given that their recent attempts at improving racing include Tour de France bonus seconds, that starting grid, and the infamous La Course time trial pursuit around Marseille.
Instead, should those of us historically unmoved by the race try harder to accept Flèche for what it is? Sure, eleven of the last 14 women’s editions have been won by van der Breggen and Vos, but dominance is a part of any sport. Is abandoning over 30 years of finishes on the Mur de Huy justified in response to all-time greats delivering unforgettable and unbeatable performances? At a time when some of the leading teams in European football are (rightly) being criticised for trying to create a breakaway Super League, seemingly for the sake of establishing a content and brand-driven entity, perhaps the race’s USP and heritage is actually worth fighting for? I think it goes something along the lines of: “Hey, it’s a super boring [to quote Tony Martin in 2015] race, but it’s OUR super boring race!” Perhaps, to paraphrase my relative, in my ambivalence towards Flèche Wallonne, I’m the one being stupid.
Image: Hoebele, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons