The most unpredictable edition of Flèche Wallonne ever?

Why this year’s men’s and women’s races are some of the most open races in history

Flèche Wallonne is like Marmite. Some riders love it, some hate it. There’s something uniquely challenging about the mid-week Ardennes race in which the iconic Mur de Huy is the centrepiece. 

There is a perfect way to tackle the 1.3 km ascent with an average gradient of 9.6% and throughout history, some riders have absolutely nailed it. Take Anna van der Breggen, for example, who earned the nickname ‘Queen of Huy’ when she won Flèche seven times in her career. She had a methodical, ruthless way of conquering the climb, staying in the saddle and pushing power through the pedals with impressive calm - Van der Breggen never really looked like she was trying, yet she was dropping her rivals in a commandeering fashion.

On the men’s side, Alejandro Valverde is one rider who similarly knew how to crack the Huy, winning Flèche four times in his career. Julian Alaphilippe is another who has taken victory on the Huy three times, with the steep and punchy inclines well-suited to the Frenchman’s strengths.

As the 2024 edition of La Flèche Wallonne approaches, however, there are very few riders in the men’s and the women’s pelotons who you could confidently bet on for victory in Wednesday's race. On the women’s side, Van der Breggen retired three years ago and Demi Vollering, who won Flèche last year, hasn’t been in as imperious form this season so far as she showed in 2023. While the SD Worx-Protime rider still has proven herself as one of the best puncheurs in the peloton, she couldn’t match the strength of Elisa Longo Borghini from Lidl-Trek at Brabantse Pijl last week, nor could she defend her Amstel Gold Race a few days later, despite trying to drop her rivals on some of the tougher inclines. Marta Cavalli is the only other defending champion due to take to the start line of the women’s Flèche this year, but the FDJ-Suez rider has been struggling with form and injury over the last few seasons and has only raced once so far this year. With this in mind, the women's edition of Flèche Wallonne this year looks more open than ever, and there’s plenty of outsiders in with a shot at victory.

Demi Vollering wins the 2023 edition of La Flèche Wallonne Féminine (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

Kasia Niewiadoma showed how strong she is on the climbs at the Tour of Flanders a few weeks ago and the Polish rider finished second in Flèche Wallonne in 2021; she will be looking to make her mark on the Ardennes this week and secure that win she has been searching for. In addition, while she’s not particularly suited to the steep gradients of the Mur, world champion Lotte Kopecky can’t be counted out for SD Worx on Wednesday either – the Dutch team will need to make a choice between her and Vollering when it comes to who they back for victory. Niamh Fisher-Black is another card that SD Worx have to play.

Lidl-Trek have a formidable lineup with Gaia Realini, Elisa Longo Borghini and Shirin van Anrooij and the American squad have shown their ability to execute perfect teamwork on plenty of occasions so far this year – we can expect this to continue into Ardennes week. Juliette Labous of Team dsm-postNL is an outside bet for Flèche as are Ashleigh Moolman and Sarah Gigante, both of AG Insurance-Soudal. Throw some pure climbers in the mix like Mavi Garcia of Liv-Alula Jayco, Olivia Baril of Movistar and Évita Muzic of FDJ-Suez and this year’s Flèche Wallonne Féminine has the potential to be one of the most explosive ever – a new Queen of Huy is extremely likely.

Tom Pidcock wins Amstel Gold Race 2024 (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

On the men’s side, with none of the de facto ‘superstar’ climbing tier taking to the start such as Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič or Remco Evenepoel, it’s also set to be an extremely open race. Tom Pidcock starts as the main favourite after the Ineos Grenadiers rider won Amstel Gold Race last week in a sprint from the breakaway to the line, but, despite his impressive victory, Pidcock doesn’t doesn’t win in such a dominating way against the rest of the field. So far in his career, the British rider’s best finish out of his three participations in Flèche is sixth place, though it’s fair to say Pidcock’s form is better than ever in 2024. Pogačar won Flèche last season after also winning Amstel a few days before and Pidcock could do the same on Wednesday, but there’s plenty of riders who will be looking to stop him.

UAE Team Emirates bring a squad who could seriously challenge the Ineos Grenadiers if they are aiming to protect Pidcock. Marc Hirschi, who finished second behind the British rider at Amstel, will likely be UAE’s team leader at Flèche Wallonne, but they also have options with Juan Ayuso, João Almeida, Finn Fisher-Black and Brandon McNulty. Lidl-Trek have a big contender with Mattias Skjelmose who had a breakout ride in Flèche last year, finishing second behind Pogačar. Mauri Vansevenant’s fourth place at Amstel also makes him one to watch on Wednesday, though the Soudal-Quick-Step rider hasn’t had a result at Flèche before. Israel-Premier Tech are another team who will be in the mix with Dylan Teuns (who won Flèche Wallonne in 2022), Simon Clarke, Jakob Fuglsang and Nick Shultz also well suited to the rolling climbs of the Ardennes.

Tiesj Benoot attacking during Amstel Gold Race 2024 (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

While they are a team which has been plagued with illness and injury this year, Visma-Lease a Bike come to Flèche with a potential winner in Tiesj Benoot, who has had a Classics season to remember with third place at Amstel Gold Race and fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Benoît Cosnefroy of Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale team won one of the most exciting races of this spring so far in Brabantse Pijl last week and could do the same again at Amstel, and there’s also outsiders like David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Aleksandr Vlasov (BORA-Hansgrohe), Richard Carapaz (EF education-EasyPost) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious) to keep an eye on.

While the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix were dominated by Mathieu van der Poel riding solo to the finish line, and previous editions of Flèche Wallonne have often been extremely predictable, it seems we won’t have that to worry about either of those scenarios on Wednesday. Both Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race provided spectacular racing that saw aggressive attacks and we can expect to see more of that when the men’s and women’s pelotons take on the “wall” of Huy, especially with no clear favourite going into either races. We wouldn’t want to make bets on this one.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix

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