Tuesday, 17 April 2012

La Flèche Wallonne 2012

History - Charleroi and Huy - the parcours - men's starters and favourites - Flèche Wallonne Féminine - women's starters and favourites - weather - coverage

The parcours - click to enlarge
(for a full-size zoomable .pdf, click here)
Like so many cycling races to have begun in the first half of the last century, La Flèche Wallonne was originally organised in an attempt to drive newspaper sales - in this case, the newspaper was Les Sports, and the first race ran between Tournai and Liège. The parcours has been altered greatly over the years, sometimes running in the opposite direction; but for many years it's covered around 200km stretching between Charleroi and Huy where the riders complete three circuits of an extremely challenging circuit featuring the legendary, infamous Muur - also known as le Chemin des Chapelles for the seven chapels that are passed on the way up, the inspiration for many a headline based around riders saying a prayer as they see their chances of victory slipping away on the gradient which is as reaching a maximum of 19% - but take the wrong line around one corner and a short ramp hits 26%.

This year, the route covers 194km, starting once again at Charleroi which lies in the Hainaut province some 45km south of Brussels. The region has been occupied by humans since long before recorded history, traces of primitive metal working providing evidence that the industry which would bring wealth to the city has a long tradition here. However, the city itself dates back only as far as 1666, a time when the Netherlands was ruled by the Spanish Crown - land here was expropriated by Francisco Castel Rodrigo, Governor of the Netherlands, for the construction of a fortress he named in honour of his king Charles-Roy; hence the city's name today. In the 165 years afterwards, it would pass repeatedly from Spanish, French, Dutch and Austrian ownership until Belgium became an independent nation in 1830. That, conveniently, coincided with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution; the natural resources that had brought people here thousands of years before ensuring that the city became rich and contributed greatly to the wealth of the nation.

The fortress at Huy
Huy's history begins in Roman times when a fortress was built on the River Meuse, but it seems to have remained a village until the Middle Ages when the metallurgy industry took off, rapidly transforming it into the richest town along the Meuse and in 1066 it received city status - the first town north of the Alps in mainland Europe to do so. The rise of the cloth industry ensured even greater prosperity during the 16th and 17th Centuries, as did paper production during the period of Dutch ownership. As such, the castle in the centre of the city remained strategically important and has been improved and extended many times over the years including extensive remodelling between 1818 and 1823.

Profile - click to enlarge
The Climbs
1. Muur de Huy, Huy, 70.5km, max. 19%
2. Côte de Peu d'Eau, Andenne, 110km, max. 15%
3. Côte de Haut-Bois, Haltinne, 115.5km, max. 17.5%
4. Côte de Groynne, Andenne, 141km, max. 20%
5. Côte de Bohisseau, Andenne, 147km, max. 18.5%
6. Côte de Bousalle, Andenne, 150km, max. 13.1%
7. Muur, 163km
8. Côte d'Amay, 179.5km, max. 20%
9. Côte de Villers-le-Bouillet, 185.5km, max. 17.5%
10. Muur, 194km

Start list
Philippe Gilbert (BMC), last year's winner, has had a rough start to the season but seems to be finding the form he had in 2011; making him most people's top choice in the absence of Cadel Evans. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) will be many people's second choice after taking second place in 2010 and 2011 - there are those who will point to his 24th place at the Amstel Gold Race, but everyone is entitled to an off-day and he rode extremely well in the Tour of the Basque Country. The Schlecks (RadioShack-Nissan) don't seem to quite know what to do with themselves this year and have put on some dismal performances, but both are formidable climbers and, should they remember how to ride their bikes, could well be contenders. You Never Know choices: Thomas Lövkvist (Sky), Oscar Freire (Katusha).

La Flèche Wallonne Féminine
The parcours - click to enlarge
(for a full-size zoomable .pdf, click here)
Once of the first Classics to realise that running a women's race alongside the men's event would cost little extra, draw in more fans, double the excitement and generally bring huge benefits all round, the organisers of La Fleche Wallonne first introduced a women's race in 1998 when it it was won by Fabiana Luperini. To date, the men's race has never been won by a British rider but British women have been highly successful with  four victories (thus taking joint first place alongside the Netherlands, whose four were all won by Marianne Vos).

The parcours is shorter at 123km and both begins and ends at Huy. The final circuit omits the initial ascent of the Muur but is otherwise identical.

Start list
As far as a lot of people are concerned, this race is all about Marianne Vos (Rabobank, winner in 2007, 2008, 2008 and 2011) and Emma Pooley (AA Drink-Leontien.nl, winner in 2010), one of the few riders capable of surpassing Vos on a climb and backed by one of the strongest teams ever seen in women's cycling. Other likely names are Vos' team mate Annemiek van Vleuten, Loes Gunnwijk (GreenEDGE), Emma Johansson (Hitec Products-Mistral Home, second place in 2009 and 2011) and, of course, Nicole Cooke (Faren-Honda) - Cooke has shown signs of a return to form after a few bad years recently and as winner in 2003, 2005 and 2006 she cannot be ruled out. You Never Know choices: Lise Nöstvold (Hitec Products-Mistral Home), Judith Arndt (GreenEDGE), the entire Specialized-Lululemon team.

Things aren't looking too awful for Charleroi, but they're not great either with a 40% chance of light rain. A southerly wind of max. 26km won't make temperatures feel any colder than 11C. Huy looks set to be much the same. Strong winds in the region on Tuesday may have blown twigs and thorns into the roads, increasing the risk of punctures.

British Eurosport have two hours of live coverage from 13:30BST and highlights on Eurosport 2 at 19:30BST, repeated at 22.20BST on Eurosport.
Live streams online from various sources (including here) starting at 13:15BST (14:15 local time/CEST).
The women's race, unfortunately and as usual, is unlikely to be televised but videos should be available soon after the race.

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