For those who have not seen the Mur de Huy in person there is one word which describes it as a finish, brutal. Watching the leaders fighting for victory, it is clear to see that any tactical mistake by a rider breaking for the line too early is severely paid for. The Mur de Huy teases the finishers by flirting the finishing line tantalising close to them, whilst the road seems to rise even steeper the closer you get to the ever elusive line. This year’s victor, Rodriguez from Team Katusha made the climb look easy, accelerating away from the field as they were barely able to turn the pedals on the 25% gradient. In the melee of the finish I spoke to three riders, getting their reactions of this “semi” classic.
Straight after he crossed the line, still out of breath and with his post-race coke in hand I spoke to Garmin Barracuda’s British born Irish rider, Daniel Martin. “That was horrible.” Was Martin’s immediate reaction when I spoke with him, still panting from his finishing effort. “I know that not many people see the first couple of hours of this race, but as normal it was really nervous. It usually is here, but I think that with the potential bad weather things were that much more nervous. We had a tail wind out of the start and the bunch was riding flat out. It is very open in the first 100km and when we hit the cross winds it was incredible. I think that everyone wanted to be in the break; only two riders did and it settled down after that. That said the roads are always narrow, with many small towns and sharp climbs which the whole bunch wants to be well placed for. Then to top it all off the hail in the last 20 kilometres, with the cooler temperatures, turned it into an epic day. I was waiting whilst Ryder was up the road so had good legs on the climb. 7th is a good ride and my legs are getting better every day at the moment. I am staying up here for Liege so fingers crossed they will continue to improve. Liege is a hard race (4,500 metres of climbing) so with good legs anything will be possible there!” As we chatted Dan’s Garmin Barracuda team mate came up to him and I caught some words from the tall, relaxed Canadian Ryder Hesjedal.
“That was close, annoyingly close. I thought that my break was going to stick at one moment. It is a tough one because the climb is so steep you have to be really explosive. I am building up to the Giro d’Italia so my condition is improving, but still I am never going to be as explosive as Gilbert or Rodriguez. Like Dan I am riding Liege on Sunday and think that it will be a better race for me. Fleche Wallonne is only 194km so the extra kilometres and climbing should mean the stronger riders will naturally be at the front. After that I have my final preparation for the Giro d’Italia where I am going to be leading the team looking forward to the steeper climbs in the hard final week.” Ryder ended up 21st only 18 seconds off of the leaders, which considering his efforts in the final 15 kilometres of the race shows his current form.
As both riders were still wearing their light racing jerseys, damp with sweat in the very cold (I would call them more glacial) Belgium winds, I let them head back to their team bus to warm up and focus on recovery for Sunday.
After the cheers for local rider Phillippe Gilbert had died down and the podium protocol was finished I waited by the infamous/legendary (delete as appropriate) Team Sky Bus for their neo-pro Luke Rowe to emerge after his shower. As an amateur U23 he has raced many of the Espoir versions of these Ardennes classics. Moments before their team bus headed back to their hotel, Director Sportif Marcus Ljungqvist jokingly granting me two questions for Rowe before they departed. I asked the young rider about his step up to the elite of cycling.
“Wow that was incredible at the start. I am not sure if you saw it but the winds and nervous roads made things really fast. At one point there were 4 splits in the peloton and everyone was riding full gas to get it back together. The plan for me at the moment is to work for the team and just get the experience of riding at this level.
"I had some really good races in the early season to bring me into this period in good form. Today is not the first Pro-Tour level race which I have done, with each one I can see an improvement and to be honest I have never really ever felt out of my depth in the races. Up until the final 30 kilometres I had to make sure that any early break was covered and that our protected riders were well placed before the second of three times up the Mur de Huy. With that done it was a simple matter of just rolling round to the finish.”
Rowe, relaxed and looking fresh for just having raced was surprisingly matter of fact:
“Though with the weather we had in the last 30 kilometres, a storm of hail and really heavy rain, it did make it pretty epic! I am off to Liege on Sunday a race which marks the end of my first racing block for this season. After that I have 3 weeks off of racing but will be training to build for my next phase, looking towards the National Championships. The first week is going to be on the Isle of Man with other Brits from the team who are preparing for the Giro and then I am going to be back at home for a week before heading to Girona for the final week. With all of the travelling I have done so far this year a week without an airport and I think I might be getting itchy feet!”
As the bus started it’s engine Rowe wrapped things up. “Fleche Wallonne is a great race, not only are the Belgian crowds incredible, but I am also really happy that my parents and girlfriend were here. It is the first professional race which they have seen me at, which lifted the morale even when the weather did not!”
Like the race itself, all of the teams were racing against the clock to get back to the hotel for their riders as soon as possible, their recovery at the front of their minds. As Luke disappeared back into the Team bus I headed back to the press room, past an engulfed BMC team bus, with deep throated chants of PHILLIPPE, PHILLIPPE, PHILLIPPE making it look more like a siege than a joyous celebration of a local hero!
Thanks to Dan, Ryder and Luke for their time, and keep your eyes open for them on Sunday at La Doyenne, The Oldest, Liege Bastogne Liege.