The second piece to the Ardennes puzzle is Fleche Wallonne, tackling the excruciatingly difficult final ascent of the Mur de Huy.
The parcours is quite different to the two other Ardennes classics. While both Amstel and Liege cover significant climbs for the majority of the race, Fleche only really covers difficult climbing in the last one and a half hours.
This year’s route will see the riders cover 200.5 kilometres, with the first 127 relatively flat.
There are eight recognised climbs on the route, with the first starting after 128 kilometres with the Cote d’Amay, which is 1.4 kilometres long at just under seven per cent. This is followed by Cote de Villers-le-Bouillet, which is 1.2 kilometres at 7.5 per cent.
Immediately after the second climb, the riders will start the first of three passes of the Mur de Huy, with the first time up the start of two circuits. At the summit of the first pass, there are 60 kilometres left.
There are two other climbs on the circuit, the first being the Cote d’Ereffe, which comes at 45 and 15 kilometres to go. The climb is the longest on the route, with the road rising for 2.1 kilometres at just over five per cent.
The Cote de Cherave is the penultimate climb on the circuit, and tops out with only four kilometres to go, until the bottom of the Mur. With an average gradient of eight per cent for 1.4 kilometres, positioning will be key – to come over the top in the front group, but to also use as little energy as possible for the final up the Mur.
In the past, this climb has offered the opportunists to try and stay away. A group of riders will need to go for such a late race break to take the win.
Poor positioning into the final climb will mean race over, as the Mur is extremely tight, with most riders blocking off the road on the early slopes to control the pace and consolidate their position before a final dash to the line – if they have enough energy left after the preceding seven climbs.
The final itself will be the hardest of the week, as the Muur averages out at around ten per cent for 1.2 kilometres, with sections towards the top of around 25 per cent.
Often, this climb is conquered by riders who are patient, not necessarily the strongest. If you go to early on the climb, you will really hit the wall around the final right-hand kink. Timing is everything.
With no Phillipe Gilbert for the rest of the classics, who has had to rest up after tearing a kidney, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will be in the prime position to take his fifth Fleche crown – and, incredibly, fourth in a row.
The Spaniard has six stage wins already this year, and will be hoping to improve from Amstel, where he finished in a disappointing 19th after missing the crucial final selection.
Michal Kwiatkowski was possibly the strongest rider on Sunday at Amstel, however a poorly timed sprint into a headwind saw him fall back into the clutches of eventual winner Gilbert in the last 100 metres, before getting beaten. The Sky man comes into the race with a strong team, including Colombian Sergio Henao, which could provide a nice one-two punch on the final few slopes.
2013 Liege-Bastiogne-Liege winner Daniel Martin has had a solid season, and with an impressive Quick Step Floors team – including Bob Jungels and Ginaluca Brambila – will back himself to get on the podium again. His best finish here is second, in 2014 behind Valverde, and also finished third last year.
36-year-old Michael Albasini seems to get better with age, and after a strong performance finishing third at Amstel, will be Orica-Scott’s team leader. Roman Kreuziger, Jack Haig, and Damien Howson will protect the Swiss rider in the final climbs, with the team looking for another podium at this race, which Albasini achieved in 2015 and 2012.
Other riders to look out for include Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Romain Bardet and Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale), Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo), Robert Gesink (Lotto NL-Jumbo), Sammy Sanchez (BMC), Jakob Fuglsang and Tangel Kangert (Astana), Bob Jungels and Ginaluca Brambilla (Quick Step Floors), Enrico Gasparotto and Ion Izaguirre (Bahrain-Merida), Warren Barguill and Wilco Kelderman (Giant-Sunweb), Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi (UAE Emirates), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), and Rafal Majka (Bora Hansgrohe).
The women will get their chance to shine before the men, with Sunday’s Amstel winner Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) looking for her third successive win at the top of the Mur.
The same names that were a part of the final in Amstel will feature at Fleche, with former winner Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Canyon-SRAM), Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High 5), Annemiek Van Vlueten (Orica-Scott), Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3) set to be up the front.