Flèche Wallonne: Can anyone stop Anna van der Breggen on the Mur de Huy?
What is it about this race — and that climb — that is so perfect for the SD Worx rider?
Anna van der Breggen and the Mur de Huy are like frites and mayo: they just go perfectly together. So much so that the Dutch rider — and current world and Olympic champion — has won La Fleche Wallonne on the Mur every year since 2015.
There’s no denying that Van der Breggen is the best female rider in the world right now, she has the rainbow jersey to prove it, but her reign of the Mur de Huy predates her reign as Olympic and multiple world champion.
The Dutchwoman first won the race aged 25, by riding away from Annemiek van Vleuten at the bottom of the Mur. At the time it was her first World Cup victory, now it's part of one of the most impressive palmares in the sport.
The only rider to come near to this record is another imperious Dutchwoman, Marianne Vos, who won the race five times between 2007 and 2013. While Vos can never be overlooked in a race, Van der Breggen very much rules over recent La Flèche Wallonne history.
Image credit: Getty Sport
Van der Breggen's biggest winning margin was 16 seconds in 2017, back to teammate (at the time) Lizzie Deignan who saw off a 21-year-old Kasia Niewiadoma, after the three broke away together on the penultimate climb. Although she has been the one finishing it off on the Mur, van der Breggen's teammates have played crucial roles in her consecutive wins, covering moves and allowing her to conserve energy for the finish.
In subsequent years, van der Breggen’s winning margin has diminished, with Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, Annemiek van Vleuten and Cecille Uttrup Ludwig taking her all the way to the line in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. Those are some of the biggest names in the sport, and yet she still edged them out to take the win.
Also in recent years, the number of riders she has had to shake off in order to win has steadily increased as the peloton gets stronger. After her 2018 win she said,"today was a different race than the three we did before, the level was a bit different and the final was harder this time - we came all together to the bottom of the Mur. So that's exciting."
Despite the collective strengthening of the women’s peloton since 2015, nobody has yet been able to knock van der Breggen off her Fleche Wallonne pedestal — although they have come close. What gives van der Breggen the upper hand over some of the best in the bunch is a combination of patience and power.
The riders tackle the 1,300m Mur de Huy twice on the course, the length of which belies its teeth-gritting gradients, and nearly every year van der Breggen has sat in and waited until the final ascent of the Mur before putting in her winning dig. You won’t see her in early breaks — although you will probably see her teammates — and even when they are brought back, you won’t see her instigating a counter-attack unless the Mur is close enough.
The sheer brutality of the climb forces a selection, meaning if you’re not strong enough, or haven’t been economical enough with your energy, you simply won’t be in contention. The 2020 fan-free edition, while a sad by-product of the pandemic, allowed for race coverage to pick up the sound of riders gasping for air, trying to get as much oxygen as they can to their burning legs as they battled their way up the 20% gradients.
Image credit: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com
To win on a climb like the Mur de Huy you have to wait until everyone is on their last legs, and then you have to be able to dig deeper still. On this climb, van der Breggen is peerless when it comes to the timing and the execution of that very effort.
The 2021 edition will be van der Breggen’s last before she retires at the end of the season, and she will want to maintain her winning streak. She may have gone into Amstel Gold on Sunday having suffered from an illness but that didn't stop her from contributing to the team effort. If she's back to her best tomorrow then it will take a strong rider indeed to get between her and a seventh win.
Cover image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com