Sometimes, a race and rider are just a match made in heaven. The 2021 Ardennes Classics have proven the fact that Julian Alaphilippe coupled with La Flèche Wallonne is one of those cases.
Julian Alaphilippe, the current world champion, is one of the most feared puncheurs in the world — the Frenchman views short, steep hills as his playground. This was on full display when he became World Champion on the Imola race circuit last year. Alaphilippe attacked on the final ascent of the Cima Gallisterna, a searing acceleration on the climb that featured 12% gradients. The likes of Marc Hirschi and Primoz Roglic were unable to follow and Alaphilippe held on to claim the rainbow jersey.
Julian Alaphilippe after becoming World Champion in Italy (Image credit: SWPix / Alex Whitehead)
Due to the Frenchman's incredible punching strength, Alaphilippe has accumulated an incredible set of results at La Flèche Wallonne.
Alaphilippe has started the race on five occasions. He was the runner-up in 2015 on his race debut aged just 22, and was second-place again the following year behind Alejandro Valverde.
Since, Alaphilippe is faultless. He’s won three in a row at La Fleche Wallonne defeating Primoz Roglic by a narrow margin this year, though the rest of the field were completely blown away by the duo. Marc Hirschi did win last year's event, though Alaphilippe didn't participate as he was too busy enjoying the rainbow bands which he'd won just days earlier. That leaves Alaphilippe with his form at La Flèche reading 2-2-1-1-1.
Getting just a little geeky now; that gives Julian Alaphilippe an average finishing position of 1.40 in five attempts. But why does Alaphilippe get on so well with La Flèche Wallonne?
All of the Ardennes Classics are smattered with hills and La Flèche Wallonne is no exception. However, this race is defined by the final climb, the Mur de Huy. This effort is around one kilometre in length but features pitches well over 15% — a tortuous effort.
The Mur de Huy (Image credit: Presse Sports / Offside)
The difficulty of the final climb makes for one of the most arduous yet thrilling finishes in cycling. It doesn't come without any caveats, though. The Mur de Huy is so punishing that riders and teams that are brave enough to open up the race and spend energy early on often lose time on the final crawl to the line, making such attacks futile.
From Quick Step’s perspective, this is favourable. With Alaphilippe in their ranks, their job is to control the rhythm and position their leader well at the foot of the Mur de Huy. From this point on, Alaphilippe's legs do the talking.
It’s not only Alaphilippe who has found repeated success on the Mur de Huy. Anna van der Breggen, the reigning women’s World Champion, has won La Flèche an astonishing seven times in a row. She is undefeated every year since 2015, and will not be beaten on the climb again — VDB will retire at the end of the 2021 season after adding number seven at La Flèche last week.
Whilst Alaphilippe has found success in the Ardennes, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the monument which on paper suits Alaphilippe best, still eludes him.
He has been in the top 5 four times in his career and even thought he’d won in 2020, though he had been outsprinted by Primoz Roglic and impeded Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogacar, meaning he was demoted to the back of the group.
The finish of Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2020 (Image credit: CorVos / SWPix)
Again, Alaphilippe ended without victory in the 2021 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, despite demonstrating some of the strongest legs in the race. He made the final selection on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons and the five riders in the group were generally accepting of a sprint finish. Heading into the final 250 metres Alaphilippe catapulted from the wheel of his countryman David Gaudu, slingshotting past Mike Woods and Alejandro Valverde who had been left to lead-out the sprint. Alaphilippe had the jump on all his opponents bar one. The reigning Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar had been sat on Alaphilippe’s wheel for the entire sprint and came past the Frenchman in the final metres of the race to become a monument winner at the age of 22.
The Ardennes classics are now over for another year and Alaphilippe must wait until 2022 for another shot at 'La Doyenne'. After the race Alaphilippe admitted, "Liege-Bastogne-Liege was a big goal for me this year. I think I did well, to be on the podium behind the winner of the Tour de France is not so bad".
"I took a really nice victory on Wednesday at La Flèche Wallonne. Today, my team did a great job to protect me all day. I tried to win, but Tadej was strong, congrats to him."
Despite missing out on an LBL win again this season, Alaphilippe can be satisfied with his campaign in the Ardennes. Again, he proved that he is the king of the Mur de Huy. A match made in heaven.
Cover image: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix