Saturday, April 25, 2015

Men, Women, Flèche Wallonne And Its New Finish

This week’s Flèche Wallonne once again concluded with a slow motion sprint, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde winning a third time atop the Mur de Huy. This despite organisers inserting a new climb within the final 10 kilometres in an effort to enliven a race which has become formulaic over the last few years.

Why has it become formulaic? Maybe it’s worth comparing the contrasting finishes in this year’s men’s and women’s races to find out whether the new climb had the desired effect. 

Of all races, Flèche Wallonne is arguably one which conforms to a stereotype applicable to all races to a greater or lesser extent. For the men, that stereotype produces an early early breakaway, caught somewhere in the final 50 km, followed by a flurry of fruitless attacks and a slow motion bunch sprint.

However, women’s racing conforms to a different, more complex stereotype, influenced as much by the financial state of the sport as much as tactics and course. 

Of the 38 UCI registered women’s teams worldwide, only six or seven win top races consistently. Three of those, Rabo-Liv, Wiggle-Honda and Boels-Dolmans, have dominated 2015. The standard in the women’s peloton varies massively, this disparity manifesting itself in attritional racing, where a breakaway is often not allowed to form; shorter distances and smaller teams meaning control is less easily exerted. 

Instead, high pace causes the bunch to be steadily whittled to a select group of top riders who fight for the win.

Iris Slappendel (Bigla) surviving at the top of the Mur
At this year’s Flèche Wallonne Femmes, the Boels-Dolmans team planned to use the new climb, the top of which was only five kilometres from the finish, to their advantage. However, they were preempted by Rabo and Bigla, who each had a rider up the road, hoping to consolidate their lead on the climb.

The lead reached 1.10, only for Rabo, with strength in numbers in the chase group, to bring it sufficiently to heel for Anna van der Breggen to bridge the gap, rest with her teammate, then attack at the base of the final ascent of the Mur de Huy.

Excellent tactics perfectly implemented.

In the men’s race, once the break was caught, somewhere in the final 50 kilometres, there were attacks, including some on the new climb. For a few moments it even seemed as though some may stay clear, even if they were perhaps more designed to set up team leaders than true bids for glory. Ultimately, however, they were all for nought. Those who tried were nullified by circumstance and the race ended in another slo-mo bunch sprint.

Jussi Veikkanen (FDJ) suffers past the podium the won't get to stand on

Bunch sprints are exciting and the prolonged nature of this one builds tension further. Not only that, but the huge crowd, adjacent to and above the road, transforms the the final 700 metres into a corridor   of noise and drama resembling the finish of a Grand Tour mountain stage. 

The problem is you know it’s going to happen.

Maybe the course is not selective enough. Maybe the final climb is too selective. Perhaps the level of men’s racing is too high; they can all get over those shorter climbs and recover in time for the next. Maybe the men’s peloton needs smaller teams like women’s racing; but six woman teams riding 121 km equates to eight men riding 205 km, yes? 

So did the new climb influence the result? Team Sky principle, Sir Dave Brailsford said this, “It made quite it interesting at the end there, but the first time you change the route like that from a traditional finish, everybody is testing it out. But did it make the race different? Did it impact the result? I don’t think so. I think the result would have been the same anyway.”

Despite two contrasting finishes, it will take a couple of years before we know whether the addition of the Côte de Cherave will add variety to either race at Flèche Wallonne. What is certain is the different structure of women’s cycling made for a more interesting finish in 2015: that may also change as the sport develops.

The event adds publicity for women’s racing and is an old friend for men’s cycling fans, it would be a shame if the Mur, the very thing which defines the race, that provides guaranteed drama, brought about its demise.

Smashed: Megan Guarnier too tired to celebrate her third place