La Fleche Wallonne 2017
In 1700, Charles the Second of Spain died, and the Hapsburgs went to war against the house of Burbon on Belgian soil. The resentment lingers. Mid-April, on a Wednesday, there is the Flemish classic, the Brabantse Pijl and almost as revenge, there is the Waalse Pijl or La Fleche Wallonne a week later. They are both relatively short courses, both defiantly named the arrow, an anachronistic nod to the wars of yore. One is broadcast in Flemish and the other in French. Since the Brabantse Pijl and La Fleche Wallonne are midweek, the spectators are either retirees or schoolchildren, those consumed by the past and those who don’t yet understand the relevance of history.
The race begins in Binche and unfurls East, flat and mostly straight, like a kitten playing with a roll of toilet paper. Nearly two-hundred kilometers later, the race makes three laps through Huy a town like any Belgian town with the exception of the massive nuclear towers steaming into the surrounding hills. It is in the valley, just along the gently flowing Meuse and unlike Valkenburg during the Amstel Gold which is a sea of sunburned, drunken flesh, on the day of La Fleche Wallonne, on this Wednesday, Huy was underwhelmed, almost stoic, the team buses, press cars, support vehicles gently clogging the roads leading in and out.
La Fleche Wallonne is not plotted through the smokey piney Ardennes like Liege-Baston-Liege, but instead charges through the plush tail of Limburg where foothills seem to, almost unintentionally, stack into hoary mountains. Each Belgian town along the route has their crew of teenage crossing guards chatting with buddy amateur racers, debating and discussing favorites; girls swayed by looks, amateur-riders by composites and group sets. It was not a warm day, but the sun was shining and the trees were greening, fields of yellow and violet, chopped by plowed, winter-hardened fields. In Binche, the racers had a dull, early-morning pallor, but by noon they were blinking from behind sunglasses. Throughout the day however, lower arms and legs remained covered in kit colors.
La Fleche Wallonne ends on the Mur de Huy, an old fort where Walloons rallied before marching off for glory in the Crusades. Now, the medieval symbol of might abuts a faded gondola and a creaky amusement park. On the day of La Fleche Wallonne, the weary attractions were encircled by the shiny pink neon tents, replete with dance music and sparkling women hawking mobile-phone contracts. When La Fleche Wallonne began the area was the gem of manufacturing and industry while their Flemish cousins wallowed in relative poverty. Now the tables have turned and Wallonia is Belgium’s rust-belt, downtrodden, but staunchly proud. This is perhaps why, in the last two-hundred meters of the race, as Alejandro Valverde lead his Movistar cavalcade up Mur de Huy, the cheering was muted. A racer with modest roots, whose own father is a truck-driver, Valverde comes from the same class, but is nonetheless a handsome, wealthy Mediterranean, a Spaniard laying an indubitable, unprecedented claim to Belgium much in the way the Burbons did with the Hapsburgs three-hundred years ago.
La Fleche Wallonne or the Waalse Pijl is trapped between the boozy, yet technical junior monument, the Amstel Gold (1966) and the oldest classic/monument, Liege-Baston-Liege (1898), The Amstel punctuates the end of the cobbled classics, while La Fleche Wallonne inaugurates the Ardenne monuments. La Fleche Wallonne has come under criticism lately for leaving the course relatively unaltered, but somehow the last few laps through Huy and up de Mur bring with it a sort of grand symmetry, tradition, time, a stubborn perseverance against the modern (with the exception of the largest Jumbotron screen at the top of de Mur that I have ever seen).
La Fleche Wallonne is a course for the puncheurs, those pugnacious cyclists who pedal and pound up the short, plump climbs. Merckx won it three times, but Movistar’s thirty-six year-old Alejandro is one such monument rider, depositing the 16,000 euro first prize in his bank account a record five times. He’s not only won La Fleche Wallonne five times, but the subsequent Liege Baston Liege three times (20,000 euro prize), and in 2015, coincidentally won both in the same week.
Valverde, with the eternal looks of a windblown, smiling accountant tail-gating in a Ferrari, hails from the coastal region of Murcia, whose rolling hills and seaside cliffs are like Wallonia’s sexier Mediterranean cousin. When Valverde pounds up the Mur de Huy, the last final climb whose gradient is not extraordinary, but nonetheless niggles the captains from the lieutenants, you can almost see the anticipation on his face, as if he is imagining that he is back in his Spanish hometown hills, racing toward the top where his beautiful wife, Natalia and their children are waiting for him to come home for dinner.
Fresh from early Tour wins in Catalonia, Basque Country, and Andalucia, this year Valverde was in top form. Bob Jungels broke away and caught up with Alessandro Di Marchi on the Cote de Ereffe and by the last three kilometers had gained a good fifty-seconds on the peloton. Jungel’s Luxembourg is a bike-ride away from Huy, making him more brethren to the Walloons than Valverde, but the young Quick-Step rider’s valiant effort failed in the last seconds and a collective groan surfed the crowd as he was swallowed on Mur de Huy. It was hard to say whether it was Valverde’s strength or thirteen-years of wisdom over Jungels that determined the outcome.
Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen won her home country’s Amstel Gold race last week then came back to win La Fleche Wallonne Feminine for the second time this year. Her public humility has always been refreshing (as when Annemiek van Vleuten crashed in the Olympic games and Van der Breggen not only dedicated her gold to her, but rushed to her side) and this year she thanked her British team-mate Lizzie Deignan effusively. Boels was a major sponsor of La Fleche Wallonne and they were no doubt proud to have two of their chummy stars on the podium.
While other women’s professional races come and go, La Fleche Wallonne Feminine has been around for almost twenty years (the Amstel Women’s race has been in hibernation since 2003). There will be complaints that Valverde’s legendary fifth win owes to a stale course, but as I watched the massive women’s peloton wind through the valleys, past the abandoned factories and mills, and up the climbs, and Anna van der Breggen who is on the path to greatness, I thought about how new and updated isn’t necessarily better. While the Amstel cut the women for fourteen years, the Walloons supported their female athletes, demonstrating that what is important is not who makes history, but how history is made, especially in a country and a race that proudly celebrates the past.
Images: Cor Vos