After watching both the men’s and women’s editions of La Fleche Wallonne Tom Owen has a question. Is it time for a change to try and mix things up a bit in terms of results in these sorts of races or are iconic finishes iconic for that very reason and therefore, are beyond tinkering?
Marc Hirschi of Switzerland and Team Sunweb / enoit Cosnefroy of France and Team AG2R La Mondiale / during the 84th La Fleche Wallonne 2020, Men Elite a 202km stage from Herve to Mur de Huy / @flechewallone / #FlecheWallone / on September 30, 2020 in Huy
Should races like La Fleche Wallonne change their parcours to try and produce a different winner, or are iconic finishes like the Mur de Huy too important to the sport to be tinkered around with?
Whenever there’s a dull edition of a race there are calls to change it, to mix things up and give somebody else a chance to win – or to try and produce more attacks at varied points in the proceedings.
There are arguments to be made for both sides, of course, and many of them were borne out today in real life in both the men’s and women’s editions of La Fleche.
Earlier on Wednesday morning, Anna van der Breggen took a sixth consecutive victory in the women’s La Fleche Wallonne, in her first competition since becoming the double world champion. The winner was decided on the Mur, as it has been for all six of her wins. She has now won 26% of all the editions of the race ever held.
In a departure from the norm, it was the men’s race that was more animated and exciting than the women’s, but the victory of Hirschi still went strictly according to the script – albeit with new actors playing the leading roles.
'Nobody can stop the Swiss!' - Hirschi powers to La Fleche Wallonne victory
La Fleche’s 2020 route was the product of some minor tinkering, with one 1.6-kilometre climb replacing another, but it had little to no effect on the actual outcome. There was one new turn that made things tense on the run-in to the Côte du Chemin des Gueuses, but aside from that things went as they always do.
Much more impactful was the openness of the racing we saw in the men’s version, where – with the winners of the past six editions, Julian Alaphilippe and Alejandro Valverde both absent – most teams in the peloton believed they had someone who could win.
The presence of Tadej Pogacar for UAE Team Emirates allowed for attacks from Rui Costa, while Mike Woods being safe in the peloton let his teammate on EF Pro Cycling, Rigoberto Uran, go for a daring solo attack. The youthful impetuosity and prodigious talent of Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck–Quick-Step) animated the race until its dying moments. AG2R La Mondiale, facing a very imminent and drastic transformation into a classics squad at the start of 2021, approached La Fleche with real vigour. And of course, the all-conquering Team Sunweb and their limitless hunger for race wins ensured a new name was written into the history books – not simply copy and pasted from the line below.
'It was perfect for us!' - Hirschi on finish of La Fleche Wallonne
If Alaphilippe had been here, there would likely have been no Vansevenant in the break, and instead Deceuninck Quick-Step would have controlled the race before letting their leader loose. If Valverde were there at the start in Herve, Movistar might’ve done the same thing – albeit with slightly less firepower.
The absence of a champion-elect is what brought the men’s race to life, and the presence of a talent as huge as Van der Breggen’s is what stifled the action a little in the women’s.
Van der Breggen storms up the Mur de Huy to win Fleche-Wallonne
Trek Segafredo did their best to make life hard for the peloton, setting a furious pace though their duo of national champions, Audrey Cordon-Ragot and Ruth Winder, but when it came to the final climb they had not done enough to sufficiently weaken Van der Breggen.
Other than that bit of endeavour, we saw little of the ‘attack, attack, attack’ style of racing that has made women’s cycling so popular among aficionados in recent seasons. Perhaps Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig might’ve given it a go if she hadn’t been caught with a horribly timed mechanical. It felt a little bit like the peloton were wondering what the point of it all was when Queen Anna was going to crush them all at the end anyway, like Godzilla and so many tiny Japanese cars.