Hailstones, echelons and a Welsh hero: The wildest edition of La Flèche Wallonne

Stevie Williams took victory with a perfectly-timed attack on the Mur de Huy after one of the most attritional races of the season

Some say that Romano-British soldiers carried the symbol of the Welsh dragon on their staffs and banners to Rome in the fourth century – named ‘Draco’ the symbol was thought to bring good luck in battle. When proud Welshman Stevie Williams crossed the finish line victorious after a brutally tough edition of La Flèche Wallonne today, however, it had taken far more than just luck for him to get there. It was a day of racing which asked for tough grit, unwavering determination and the ability to still hold on to enough sanity for a tactical final ascent of the Mur de Huy. Williams came out on top, but each rider who even managed to finish Flèche Wallonne this year deserves praise – it will be a race that many will hope to forget.

The morning sun shone down on the riders as they lined up in Charleroi, giving no hint of the chaos that was about to descend on the peloton. As the race played out though, it quickly became clear that this would not be a usual edition of Flèche Wallonne. First came rain, then hail and snow, then wind, which caused splits in the bunch. Riders scrambled to put on rain jackets and some abandoned mission altogether, with the likes of pre-race favourite Mattias Skjelmose pulling to the side of the road, shaking violently from the cold in his bones. As the race drew out, more and more riders fell from the back of the peloton: Amstel Gold Race winner Tom Pidcock was another of the biggest names to drop early, the unexpected weather having adverse effects on each rider's condition.

Those who tuned into the TV coverage of Flèche Wallonne for the closing 50 kilometres were confused by the pictures that popped up. ‘Where is the rest of the peloton?’ was the general consensus when a group of only around 40 men remained in the race. Among them were those who relished the freezing temperatures: Uno-X Mobility had the numerical advantage of five riders in the front group, with the Scandinavian team comfortable in the tempestuous conditions. Danish puncheur Søren Kragh Andersen of Alpecin-Deceuninck was another rider undeterred by the cold, making a promising solo attack that gave him a gap of almost a minute with 40 kilometres to go. At points, it looked as if Kragh Andersen might just make it to the final ascent of the Mur, but he was reeled back in by the Norwegian squad behind who were determined to capitalise on their strength in numbers.

But it isn’t just in Scandinavia where grim weather like we saw in Flèche Wallonne today is a common occurrence. The rolling hills of West Wales in the United Kingdom, where Stevie Williams originally hails from, are also regularly washed with pelting rain and layered in sheets of snow. It was clear today from the Israel-Premier Tech rider’s perfect dissection of the Mur de Huy that the weather hadn’t impacted Williams in the same way it had for others. He commented after the race that he liked racing in these sorts of conditions, and he showed it on the Huy as he launched a move in the closing metres of the climb which none of his rivals could match. Williams got the gap and held it to the finish, still having the time and energy to lift both hands off the bars and punch the air with accomplished joy as he crossed the line.

“I can’t believe I just won Flèche. I’ve been watching this race for years now and I’ve always wanted to come here with decent legs and try to win it,” Williams gushed after the race. I enjoy racing in this kind of weather and I’m over the moon to come away with the victory. The boys backed me all day and gave me the best chance to try and do a result today. I am lost for words, quite emotional really. It's a really hard sport and to win bike races is hard, especially here in the Classics.”

Williams’ emotion was matched by the reaction of his sports directors in the team car behind. A video shared on Israel-Premier Tech’s social media showed Sam Bewley and Daryl Impey celebrating with triumph: “F*cking hell he did it! He smoked them,” Bewley grinned.

While Williams and his team celebrated atop the Mur de Huy, other riders crawled slowly over the finish line, searching for the arms of their soigneurs that held jackets and hot drinks. Vacant stares and trembling hands were signs of how unexpectedly extreme this year’s Flèche Wallonne had been. The midweek Ardennes Classic which is usually all about just making it over a short, steep climb in Huy ended up being one of the most challenging races of the spring. Stevie Williams was up for the challenge.

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