It’s official, La Flèche Wallonne belongs to Anna van der Breggen. The World Champion took a record seventh victory on the Mur de Huy today in her final appearance in the race of her distinguished career.
In the days leading up to the race it was unclear whether the defending champion would be able to pull off the feat. She sat out Brabantse Pijl due to illness and seemed to use Amstel Gold Race to test the legs — although she was still able to work for team-mate Demi Vollering who took second.
To win on the Mur de Huy is to be in searing form and even Van der Breggen herself wasn’t entirely confident, saying in a press conference yesterday: "I’ve never won this race just to continue the winning streak, it only happened every year until now. I’m still unsure of how I will feel on Wednesday, because if I am the same as I was in Amstel Gold Race, then it won’t be good enough to win on the Mur." It didn’t seem like a bluff, but she found her legs just in time.
Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com
How it happened
There are some who consider La Flèche Wallonne to be the least exciting of the Ardennes Classics, due to the finish on the Mur de Huy rendering the race a procession to the final climb. While men’s racing might lend itself to a more formulaic unfolding of events, the women’s peloton know how to light it up from the gun.
Within the first hour of racing, two moves — each with two riders — had gone up the road, with Silvia Magri of Valcar Travel and Service and Barbara Sniezynska of Doltcini Van Eyck going clear followed by Marta Lach of Ceratizit-WNT and Femke Gerritse of Parkhotel Valkenburg.
The two sets of riders never quite managed to form a quartet, though, and almost as soon as they were all caught on the Côte de Groyne, Elise Chabbey of Canyon//SRAM, Lucinda Brand of Trek-Segafredo, and Anna Henderson of Jumbo-Visma took off, catching out SD Worx and forcing them to chase.
Even with the full fire power of SD Worx in the form of Karol-Ann Canuel, Anna Shackley, and Niamh Fisher Black, the three stayed away for 25km including the first time up the Mur de Huy. It was when Ashleigh Moolman Pasio — who had suffered two crashes earlier in the race — took up the mantle and finished off the job of her team-mates that the group finally came back.
Trek-Segafredo have been outdoing SD Worx at their own numbers game in recent races and no sooner were Brand, Chabbey, and Henderson caught did Brand’s team-mate Ruth Winder launch her own move. Winder quickly got a gap and a tenacious second attempt from Chabbey followed but it was Winder who stayed away, by this time, however, a select group had formed behind her containing all of the favourites with the exception of Women’s World Tour leader, Marianne Vos.
Photo Credit: Zac Williams/SWpix
Winder managed to hold off the group until the very bottom of the final drag-race up the Mur after a teeth-grittingly deep effort from Demi Vollering of SD Worx to bring her back. Winder would have been hoping her team-mate Elisa Longo Borghini was able to finish the job. Unfortunately for everyone who fancied their chances, the group contained the queen of the Mur, Anna van der Breggen.
Unbeaten since 2015 in this race, Van der Breggen was the very definition of calm and collected as she led the group up the eye-popping slopes wearing her trademark poker face.
Kasia Niewiadoma looked like a potential threat as she held the world champ’s wheel. Meanwhile, the riders behind were bobbing and grinding to try and claw their way up to the pair on gradients of up to 19%. Niewiadoma and Van der Breggen were shoulder-to-shoulder at one stage but when Van der Breggen decided to go on the Mur she showed no mercy, and the Polish climber had to settle for second.
Van der Breggen will likely be at La Flèche Wallonne next year, but in the convoy rather than the peloton as she enters her new role as DS for SD Worx. While the Dutch rider has been unbeaten for seven years, each win has been more hard-fought than the last. The likes of Niewiadoma and Uttrup-Ludwig will be hoping to take over from her reign but as the Canyon-Sram rider pointed out after the race: “With every passing year the women’s level is increasing, so sometimes you think ‘okay, next year that person isn’t racing so I should be winning’ but unfortunately it’s not that easy.”
For many retiring athletes, going out ‘on a high’ is a pinnacle that few manage to reach. Whatever happens for the rest of Van der Breggen’s season, taking her seventh-consecutive win at the race with which she has become synonymous — and this time wearing the prestigious rainbow bands — is more than most could ever dream of.