The Poggio, the Koppenberg, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, the Civiglio – these are all key climbs in their respective Monuments, but Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia can all be won elsewhere if things don’t come to ahead on their showpiece ascents.
The same cannot be said of the Mur de Huy, the immovable focal point of La Flèche Wallonne. Julian Alaphilippe’s victory ahead of Primoz Roglic and Alejandro Valverde on Wednesday underlined the glaringly obvious: that as long as the finish comes at the top of the Mur de Huy, the outcome of any edition of La Flèche will be decided on the unforgiving 1.3km climb, with its twists and turns and double-digit ramps.

Flèche Wallonne 2021 Men's Highlights - Catch up with every moment from a sensational race

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Whatever the outcome on Wednesday, that would have been an indisputable fact. For the last-man standing of the day’s eight-man break, the Dutchman Maurits Lammertink, was symbolically swept up going under the banner heralding the start of the third and final ascent of the Mur.
For four years running, and once before that, Valverde ruled the Mur with an iron fist at the end of a spindly forearm. But the Spanish veteran had no answer when Alaphilippe and Roglic played out the latest chapter of their intriguing uphill rivalry, the Movistar man settling for third place – an eighth podium finish in La Flèche – just four days ahead of his 41st birthday.
It was Jumbo-Visma’s Roglic who took the initiative. Making his debut in the race, the 31-year-old followed the Philippe Gilbert rule book from 2011 with an early attack following the Virage Claudy Criquielion after his riders were still reeling from the steepest 19 per cent segment.
“I was there and so why not, eh?” Roglic said with trademark deadpan delivery. “If I’d had stronger legs, I’d have won but someone was better today on the road.”
The Slovenian then succinctly summed up the simplistic allure of the Mur de Huy, a test that only the eventual winner of La Flèche can pass with flying colours.
There’s not much romanticism or philosophy here on the last climb. If you have the legs, you can go and you win.
Go he went – and seemingly with the legs – but win he didn’t. It's not who hits out the hardest, but who gets the balance right. Alaphilippe - a veteran of this race - knows that only too well.
If Roglic had gone early, with just over 350 painful metres to go, Alaphilippe timed his riposte to perfection. Never giving up despite the growing gap, the Frenchman kept his cool, snapping Valverde’s elastic before putting in his own decisive dig at around the same point his fellow world champion, Anna van der Breggen, delivered her own killer blow to Kasia Niewiadoma to reach seventh heaven earlier in the day.
As Alaphilippe drew level with Roglic inside the final 75 metres as the road started to flatten out, there was a brief moment of swaying indecision – like you get as the roller coaster slows at the crest of an elevated hill before a death-defying plunge – where it could have gone either way.
The two leaders now shoulder-to-shoulder, Roglic seemed to rise to the occasion and stop his rival in his tracks with a second wind. But the Slovenian couldn’t sustain it, and Alaphilippe surged clear. Still, in a week where photo finishes dominated the news, you couldn’t help but deem Alaphilippe a little foolhardy – the Frenchman has history here, and one that directly benefited Roglic – as he eased to start his celebrations.
Absent last year, Alaphilippe has now won his previous three editions of La Flèche. It's not a scratch on Van der Breggen's seven successive triumphs, but certainly enough to have Valverde worried for his record of five victories – especially if the Frenchman's career stretches anywhere near as long as the Spaniard's.
In the event, Alaphilippe's second win of the season was secured by over a bike length - and a record-equalling ascent of the Mur (Alaphilippe tied Valverde's last-kilometre time of 2'41" from 2014). Laying to rest those momentary fears that he'd be caught out with a premature celebration, there was no need for the photo-finish controversy of the kind we saw play out after last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race finale.
The big loser there – if coming runner-up to Wout van Aert by 0.004 seconds can be classified as losing – was Tom Pidcock, who himself rode to a solid if unspectacular sixth place on his debut appearance in La Flèche. Not far behind the Ineos Grenadier tyro was fellow Briton Ben Tulett of Alpecin-Fenix – at 19, the youngest rider in the race – who took an impressive twelfth.
We’ll never know what may have been had Pidcock – one of the peloton’s most in-form riders after his victory in De Brabantse Pilj and near-miss in Amstel – not crashed with 28km remaining and picked up a Flèche wound.
It’s not the only unanswerable question from the race, either. Even before the 85th edition started, two of the main favourites – defending champion Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogacar – were ruled out after a Covid-19 positive for their teammate Diego Ulissi forced the entire UAE Team Emirates squad to withdraw.
It would have been interesting to see how UAE would have played their cards with both Hirschi and Pogacar perfectly suited to contest the win. It's pretty clear, though, that the race would still have come down to the final ascent of the Mur de Huy. It proved once again that there’s no other climb in pro cycling that plays such an important role in the outcome of a race.
You can't have a Flèche without the Mur de Huy. But neither, it seems, can you have a memorable edition of the Flèche with it.
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