Daniel Moreno proved to be the strongest rider on the finishing climb of the Mur de Huy to win Flèche Wallonne. But is the race in danger of becoming formulaic?

Words by Edward Pickering

Wednesday April 17, 2013

One of the biggest myths peddled by all kinds of interests in the world of professional cycling is that bike racing is always exciting. Elements of the media, race organisers, sponsors, teams and fans often take this as a given.

But it’s not true.

Just as there are turgid nil-nil draws in football, or dull, penalty-dominated rugby matches, some bike races are a bit of a yawn. As with everything, there is a spectrum, with fascinating, absorbing, exciting races like this year’s Paris-Roubaix, for example, at one end. Milan San Remo was there or thereabouts this year, too, as was Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race.

Flèche Wallonne was towards the other end. The race evolved along such predictable lines that the only doubt was which uphill sprinter would burst from the front of the race to cross the line first. The method was the same as most recent Flèche Wallonnes – start the climb in a big group, and the rider with the best combination of strength and timing wins.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable to watch. There was pleasant green scenery: the rolling, forested hills of the Ardennes looked beautiful in the spring sunshine. Watching the peloton shifting in shape and size as occasional attacks went, or as they climbed, was an interesting study of racing dynamics. But the real action was compressed into a 20-metre stretch of road (coincidentally the same spot as last year) when Katusha’s Daniel Moreno launched his finishing sprint, and put clear air between himself and the labouring Philippe Gilbert.

The sprint on the Mur de Huy is all about timing and positioning. Riders who go too early, as Ag2r’s Carlos Betancur discovered, find themselves pedalling as if through treacle. Riders who go too late, or start their effort from too far down, as fourth-placed Dan Martin of Garmin discovered, find themselves overtaking riders all the way up the finishing straight, but too late for the win.

Moreno did both things right – by tracking race favourite Gilbert’s wheel up through the climb’s famous steep S-bend, and out onto the long straight road towards the final 250 metres, he’d put himself in the right position. And he left his attack late enough that he could hold his speed to the line. Sergio Henao chased in for second, but never looked like threatening Moreno, while Betancur just held off Martin for third. Colombian cycling fans will be cheering having two of their countrymen on the podium of a semi-Classic.

This year was the 10th anniversary of the last time the race happened in any other way than a straight uphill sprint between the favourites. Cycling races need to think carefully before tinkering with formulas and formats that work, but Flèche Wallonne is fast becoming one of the most predictable events on the calendar. Is it time for a rethink on the route?

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The fastest rider on the Cauberg climb in Amstel Gold last week was Philippe Gilbert, and while this only got him fourth place then, he was obviously feeling confident for Flèche. His BMC team took responsibility for controlling the race, and the smothering pace they set was in large part responsible for the inability of attacks to stick in the final 50 kilometres.

Gilbert is still waiting for his first win as World Champion, and after his display on the Cauberg, and the fact that Flèche Wallonne’s defending champion Joaquim Rodriguez injured himself in a crash in the Dutch race, he obviously fancied his chances of being the fastest up the Mur. He’d been peerless on the same climb in 2011 – he lacks the lightning acceleration of that year, but he and his team still rode most of the race like he was the winner-elect.

BMC shut down the early break with 40 kilometres to go, before the penultimate ascent of the Mur, then kept the bunch stretched out in single file as riders tried and failed to escape. Laurens Ten Dam of Blanco and Simon Geschke of Argos managed to emerge over the Mur with a lead that barely scratched 30 seconds, but they’d only succeeded in providing BMC with a carrot to chase, and they had no hope of victory. The Swiss team kept the bunch at a fast, uncomfortable pace all the way to Huy. As the kilometres ticked downwards, a line of red riders, interrupted by Gilbert’s white world champion’s strip, hared towards the finishing climb.

Astana gave BMC a breather as the race crossed the Meuse river into the town, and up the draggy main street that leads to the bottom of the Mur, before a Blanco rider led into the climb. Betancur attacked, too early, sealing his fate. Gilbert went to the front early – at the speeds they ride up the Mur, wind resistance is less of an issue – followed by Sagan, Moreno and Henao.

As Sagan faltered, Gilbert looked like he might be able to ride away, but he suddenly looked uncomfortable, and Moreno chose that moment to go for it. Uran followed, but his timing and positioning were inferior to Moreno’s and he couldn’t make an impression on the Spaniard’s lead. As for Gilbert, he started zig-zagging, head down, and sat down. After Moreno, 13 more riders passed him in the final 100 metres. Gilbert’s team had ridden as if he were going to win the race. Unfortunately for them and him, he hadn’t.

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