La Flèche Is On!

The best puncheurs in the world return to Huy this morning, where they are battling to succeed Marta Cavalli (FDJ-Suez) in the 26th edition of La Flèche Wallonne Femmes. Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) returns to competition 18 months after her last race. “So much has changed in my life”, says the British icon who gave birth to her second child at the end of September. The cast of Dutch stars is impressive with the likes of Demi Vollering (SD Worx), Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Shirin van Anrooij (Trek-Segafredo) trying to emulate the Oranje Queens Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos.


The route of the 26th edition of La Flèche Wallonne Femmes may be 3 kilometres shorter than last year (127km), it doesn’t make it any easier to tame. The triple ascent of the Mur de Huy, introduced in 2022, is once again on the program. The final 37km loop, to be covered twice, still features the climbs of Ereffe (2.1km at 5%) and Cherave (1.3km at 8.1%), before the traditional arrival on the Mur de Huy (1.3km at 9.6%). No surprise, therefore, and the same goes for the weather conditions, usually favorable for the “puncher’s world championship”: “It will be good, 10 to 15 degrees Celsius, which is the ideal temperature for cycling”, says Yannick Talabardon, the director of the race. “The field is extremely dense, it’s super interesting. There are a few favourites, but it’s very open, because all the best in the world for this type of course are there. Last year, there were around twenty of them together at the bottom of the final ascent. We expect roughly the same scenario. But most teams will have an interest in moving early in order to exhaust Demi Vollering’s SD Worx.”


An icon with one of the most impressive records in cycling, Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) is also a mother of two children, gearing for her return to competition after she gave birth last Autumn. “I’m really excited”, the British icon said on Tuesday. “It’s strange to be back at the same hotel we always stay in. Nothing has really changed here, but so much has changed in my life. It’s a surreal feeling to be back, but it also feels familiar and safe. I know the staff, the riders, the equipment… It’s just exciting.” After she initially planned to make her return for the first edition of La Vuelta Femenina by (May 1-7), Deignan comes to the Ardennes to support her teammates on the Mur de Huy, where she’s been 2nd on two occasions (2014, 2017), and in Liège, where she won in 2020: “I’m not gonna be as prepared as I would have liked but my numbers are really good. I’m physically fit in terms of endurance. I just have a gap in terms of real top end intensity. I will use the races for that. There’s no pressure on me to get a result. If you look at the line-up this week, it’s clear me and Lucinda [Brand] are the two workers in the team and we have four real prospects that can win the race, tomorrow and in Liège, with Spratty, Elisa Longo Borghini, Shirin [Van Anrooij] and Gaia Realini.”


“When you have tasted it, you only want to get it again.” FDJ-Suez naturally intend to “play the leading roles” a year after Marta Cavalli’s triumph in Huy. “There are several possibilities with Marta, Cecilie [Uttrup Ludwig] or someone else depending on the race situations”, explains Cédric Barre, the sports director of the French team. “We’re going to play with this. Marta, as we know, is in the process of returning to the highest level of competition [following a crash during the Tour last summer]. It will take time, and we will adapt according to her feelings tomorrow. She did not have a good day in the Amstel [DNF], but we quickly turned to the Flèche.” The Mur de Huy may also suit the French climber Evita Muzic and the Danish dynamite Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, 2nd in 2020 and winner last year atop another wall, in Épernay, at the end of stage 3 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. There are many options… And Cédric Barre does not rule out the possibility of early moves, to surprise and challenge their rivals: “I am not sure that the anticipation has yet worked here. But why not a first…”


Two Dutch Queens, Marianne Vos and Anna van der Breggen, have ruled 12 of the first 25 editions of La Flèche Wallonne Femmes, but last year’s assault on the Mur de Huy saw an Italian rising star dethrone them. Will Orange stars return to the top step of the podium? At the helm of the Dutch powerhouse SD Worx, Demi Vollering (3rd in 2020 and 2022) is a hot favourite in line with her impressive string of results so far this year, with victories in Strade Bianche, Dwars door Vlaanderen and Amstel Gold Race. “I think there’s a possibility [that Vollering wins]”, says Van der Breggen, now a sports director for SD Worx. “It’s a combination of feeling your body very well and pacing the final climb perfectly so you don’t collapse. It is the ultimate suffer festival.” Rising talents such as Shirin van Anrooij (Trek-Segafredo), Yara Kastelijn (Fenix-Deceuninck) and Loes Adegeest (FDJ-Suez) also want to follow the tracks of their iconic predecessors. Unless a Dutch star paves the way to a German victory, 24 years after Hanka Kupfernagel’s triumph? “It’s a new opportunity for us”, says Movistar Women DS Jorge Sanz, whose road captain Annemiek van Vleuten faces for the last time one of the very few summits she hasn’t conquered (2nd in 2015, 2019 and 2022). “We have two great leaders for this race: Annemiek, with all her history and her results, and Liane [Lippert]. She has a Flèche in her legs, in the coming years if not this year.”

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