La Flèche Wallonne – the ‘Walloon Arrow’ in English – is the central race of the three Ardennes Classics, and the first to take place entirely in the Ardennes. It has been on the calendar for 86 years, and in recent years takes place in between Amstel Gold Race and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. This year it falls on Wednesday 20th April, following Paris-Roubaix, due to the schedule change triggered by the French presidential elections.
Its central focus is the intimidating Mur de Huy, which riders will claw their way up three times en route to the finish line.
In a break from recent tradition the race will depart from the town of Blegny, in the east of the Ardennes, rather than Charleroi in the west which has played host to the start for the past few years. Following the road east for a distance the peloton will turn south before swinging back west as they traverse the Ardennes, taking in a couple of named ascents along the way.
The early climbs are no laughing matter. The first is the Côte de Tancrémont, which after only 44.2km of racing could prove challenging, with a 5.9% average gradient over 2.6km. Only ten kilometres later the Côte des Forges is half the length of the previous climb, but with a percentage of 7.8% on average it becomes clear why the Ardennes classics are favoured by the climbers among the peloton over the shorter, cobbled bergs of Flanders.
The riders might view the following 70-odd kilometres as time to sit back and enjoy a period of relative calm as they wind their way further west. It’s far from flat though, so the peloton must be on guard for anyone making a speculative break for freedom. After around 120km of racing, the riders begin the first of three loops of the town of Huy that will constitute the final 80km of the race.
The Huy circuit takes in three climbs, each of which will be ascended three times. The Côte d’Ereffe (2.1km long at 5%) and the Côte de Cherave (1.3km long at 8.1%) are both challenging in their own right, but it’s the Mur de Huy that has garnered a reputation as one of the toughest ascents in all of one-day racing.
Translating quite literally as Wall of Huy, the description is as apt as it is blunt. It’s a brutal ramp, 1.3km long and averaging a cruel 9.6%, but with sections that max out at 19% it will decimate the bunch, and ensure that the final is one for the puncheurs alone. While the first two ascents may cause breaks in the peloton, it’s the final ascent that will decide the winner, as the riders must tackle the last punishing climb to reach the finish line which lies at its peak.
It’s fair to say that Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl have had a classics season to forget, thus far. They will wish to move on from the perceived failure at the Flanders classics as quickly as possible, and will look to the Ardennes, and to Julian Alaphilippe, for salvation. The world champion has ridden La Flèche Wallonne on five occasions, winning the last three in 2021, 2019 and 2018 and coming second in the previous two. He didn’t participate in 2020. Not a bad record, all things considered.
The undisputed king of the race though, is Alejandro Valverde. The Movistar veteran holds the record for the most wins in the race with five altogether, the first coming back in 2006 and the most recent in 2017. In his final season of racing, it would not be a surprise to see Valverde return to this successful stomping ground to look for a ‘one for the road’ victory. He’s already had some strong results, taking second place at Strade Bianche and winning the GC at Gran Camino.
Jumbo Visma’s Olympic time trial champion Primož Roglič will not race the Ardennes classics this year as he deals with a knee injury. This means the team in black and yellow will likely ride for Tiesj Benoot who is well-suited to this terrain, finishing third in Amstel Gold Race.
Ineos Grenadiers’ Tom Pidcock will fancy his chances; he excels up short, sharp climbs. His teammate Michał Kwiatkowski has also proven his form this season with his victory in Amstel Gold Race. Israel PremierTech’s Michael Woods has come third and fourth in this race in the past two years, and would love to go one better in 2022. His team mate Jakob Fuglsang might also aim for the top spot, having lost out to Marc Hirschi in 2020.
Speaking of the UAE rider – the only man not called Alaphilippe or Valverde to have won the race since 2013 – the Swiss will be back this year. However, he may not have things his own way, as UAE Team Emirates also bring Pogačar, who has proven his abilities in the Ardennes already, winning Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2021. With a strong climbing team to support him, and the disappointment of De Ronde fresh in his mind, the Slovenian will likely set his sights on adding La Flèche Wallonne to his already stunning palmares.
Outside of these main contenders there are a number of riders who, on their day, could challenge for the podium, or perhaps even the win. Benoit Cosnefroy of AG2R-Citroen is one such rider, a gutsy competitor for whom, after his disappointment at Amstel Gold Race, a really big win always feels just a hair’s breadth away.
Wout Poels has been in amongst it in the past couple of the seasons, seemingly rejuvenated since joining Bahrain Victorious, and he triumphed rather improbably in an uphill sprint at the Ruta del Sol, a race where he later took an unexpected GC win. Team DSM’s Søren Kragh Andersen has been ominous so far this spring and he too, might be in with a chance of an upset in Wallonia.
With the two legends of the past decade of La Flèche Wallonne among the contenders, it would be easy to plump for one of them and be done with it. Alaphilippe has already taken a stage at Itzulia and looks strong. Valverde too is in decent form; it’s a race he is synonymous with and he would doubtless love to add another victory, in his final season of racing.
Yet, there’s one name on the start list that stands out like the Mur de Huy on the stage profile. When Tadej Pogačar races, Tadej Pogačar more often than not wins. With a recent, significant loss still stinging and a vacancy on his palmares for another Ardennes Classic, we are backing the UAE rider to top the podium in Huy.