The rider sporting the number one also leads the world rankings, thanks to a start to the season that he has dominated in the face of little opposition just until the week of the Ardennes Classics. Diminished or not by a recent fall on the Tour of the Basque Country, Julian Alaphilippe heads to the Flèche Wallonne where he is most dangerous.
If five-time winner Alejandro Valverde is still the man to beat on the Mur de Huy he could spoil the plans of the Deceuninck-Quick Step winning machine. Unless the world champion he succeeded, Peter Sagan, bounces back for his return to the race that could be his opportunity to get back on form in what has been a somewhat disappointing spring.
This is where it all began. For sure, discerning cycling aficionados already had the chance to detect the signs of an exceptional talent in the winner of the Fougères stage on the Tour de Bretagne in 2013, then a few months later at the Plateau des Glières on the Tour de l’Avenir. But it was the climb up the Mur de Huy where Julian gave a dazzling glimpse of his explosive abilities by clinging to the wheel of Alejandro Valverde, who in 2015 won his 3rd Flèche Wallonne. The French youngster, who came up short against the Spaniard the following year, had to wait until the spring of 2018 to win with authority in Huy. And since this consecration, “Alaf” has become one of the dominant riders in the major one-day classics, with victories on the Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo. Despite a recent fall that forced him to retire from the Tour of the Basque Country, the world number one comes in as the favourite, and will have by his side his team mate Philippe Gilbert, winner eight years ago of the Flèche Wallonne and last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix!
If Alaphilippe has won more classics than Gilbert at the same age, the same cannot be said of Peter Sagan, who he beat recently in Italy but has never clashed with on the Mur de Huy. The Slovak has ventured there only once, finishing a very honourable 12th place in 2013, which only needs to be improved for his return to the Ardennes. Since he lost the world champion jersey, Sagan has struggled to find his way to the top step of the podium (only one victory in 2019, on the Tour Down Under), and his successor seems to have lost the winning formula since slipping on the rainbow jersey. While he had nine victories at this time last year, Valverde has just one stage win on the UAE Tour in 2019… but in some ways he will race on home soil next Wednesday. Among the regular Flèche contenders, Dan Martin has finished on the podium three times and will ride this year with victory in mind. He will have to contend with former team mate Michal Kwiatkowski, who rode to 5th place in 2013 and 3rd in 2014 as well as Michael Matthews who finished 5th last year and Michael Woods, who in the Vuelta (Balcon de Bizkaia stage) showed some real dexterity while the others struggled. On another steep terrain, Romain Bardet managed to overtake the Canadian at the Worlds in Austria. The silver medallist in the World Championship will need at least the same form to win his first classic. It will also be the challenge for Adam Yates, Daniel Martinez and Rudy Molard.
25 TEAMS, THE MAIN CONTENDERS
Mitchelton-Scott: A.Yates (Gbr), Albasini (Che)
Bahrain-Merida: Pozzovivo (Ita), Teuns (Bel), Dennis (Aus)
Deceuninck-Quick Step: Alaphilippe (Fra), Gilbert (Bel), Mas (Esp)
Lotto-Soudal: Vanendert, Wellens (Bel)
Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise: Van Gestel, Sprengers (Bel)
Wanty-Gobert Cycling Team: G.Martin (Fra), Eiking (Nor)
Wallonie Bruxelles: Jules (Fra), Lietaer (Bel)
AG2R La Mondiale: Bardet, Cosnefroy (Fra)
Groupama-FDJ: Gaudu, Molard (Fra)
Cofidis, Solutions Crédits: Jes.Herrada (Esp), Simon (Fra)
Team Sunweb: Matthews (Aus)
Bora-Hansgrohe: Sagan (Svk), Schachmann (Deu)
Team Sky: Kwiatkowski (Pol), De La Cruz (Esp), Poels (Nld)
Israel Cycling Academy: Hermans (Bel)
Astana Pro Team: Fuglsang (Dnk), Fraile (Esp), Lutsenko (Kaz)
Team Jumbo-Visma: Gesink (Nld)
CCC Team: De Marchi (Ita)
Team Dimension Data: Kreuziger (Cze), Valgren (Dnk), Gasparotto (Ita)
Movistar Team: Valverde (Esp)
Euskadi Basque Country-Murias: Rodiguez, Bravo (Esp)
Team Katusha Alpecin: Haas (Aus), Boswell (Usa)
United Arab Emirates
UAE Team Emirates: D.Martin (Irl), Costa (Prt), Henao (Col)
EF Education First: Woods (Can), Martinez (Col)
Trek-Segafredo: Mollema (Nld)
Rally UHC Cycling: McNulty (Usa)