“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time” - Leo Tolstoy.
Cycling is a sport associated with adrenaline, with high-paced action and furious attacks. Think strength, speed, power, sprints. But Marta Cavalli won Flèche Wallonne today by waiting. By exhibiting an exemplary display of self-control, and above all, by mastering the art of patience.
As it has been time and time again, this year’s edition of Flèche Wallonne Femmes was decided atop the mighty Mur de Huy. While only 900m long, it’s a stinging climb. Too steep even for the easiest gear, too long to attack right from the bottom. The gradient kicks up as riders turn on to the ‘Chemin des Chapelles’, the ‘way of the chapels’ in English, given the name due to the six Holy places situated on the road to the summit of the climb. Despite its short distance, the Huy feels like a pilgrimage to many, especially when riding it for the third occasion after 130km of racing.
It almost feels as if time stands still as riders crawl up the Mur de Huy. The metres tick down so slowly, the finish line feeling as if it will never appear. It’s an enduring, slow and painful battle between the front runners as they get out of the saddle, rocking and rolling, teeth clenched, brows furrowed.
The Mur’s short distance is cruelly misleading, and it means that many riders get it wrong, like pre-race favourite Annemiek van Vleuten did today when she hit out at her competitors still with 400m to go. Van Vleuten may have been the strongest all the way up the 'wall', but those last 50 metres were where it mattered most. And that’s where Cavalli got things right.
When Van Vleuten launched her big attack, the Italian rider allowed a small gap to open to her Dutch rival, keeping her rhythm, working her way back to the wheel of the Movistar rider without digging deeper than her capabilities. When she found herself back at the front of the race, she stayed calm. She waited and maintained her sangfroid until the moment was right, stalking her rival, ready to pounce. With 50 metres to go, the FDJ rider made her move. It took only a few pedal strokes for Cavalli to open up a gap. Van Vleuten was empty, she’d gone too soon and, like so many have before her, she'd fallen prey to the curse of the Mur.
This impeccable timing is something that Marta Cavalli has exhibited before. In the Amstel Gold Race a few weeks ago, she launched her winning move right as a lull fell in the lead group and her competitors glanced the other way. At the time, some called it luck, but the 25-year-old’s repeated tactical brilliance today proved that it was much more than that.
As Cavalli becomes the first woman to win Flèche Wallonne following on from Anna van der Breggen’s seven-year dominance, she cements her position as one of the best riders in the peloton. Fifth at Paris-Roubaix a few days ago, FDJ’s Italian superstar’s versatility is noteworthy, and puts her in good stead as a top competitor for the upcoming Tour de France Femmes.
Of course, bike races are rarely won alone, and Cavalli’s teammates, Brodie Chapman especially, played a big part in the Italian’s victory today. With huge turns on the front of the bunch, Chapman pulled back the dangerous breakaway of 15 riders, halving the gap from over a minute and a half to just 30 seconds, sacrificing her chances for her teammate. Even second-place finisher Annemiek van Vleuten lauded the efforts of the French outfit. “Their team was perfect: the leadouts, the moves, everything,” she said afterwards.
If Cavalli’s win today proves one thing, it’s that cycling is a sport about far more than just physical strength. Passionate, instinctive, wild attacks don’t always pay off, and the Mur de Huy is a climb that can be dissected with a clinical approach. As Anna van der Breggen’s mastery throughout the last seven years proves, to win in La Flèche Wallonne requires more than just strong legs. The victor needs intelligence, composure and self-control, something that Marta Cavalli seems to have in abundance.