Charleroi - A host of young pretenders will
be lining up title-holder Alejandro Valverde in their sights at the Fleche
Wallonne on Wednesday.
The midweek Ardennes Classic race lasts
nearly 200km yet almost always comes down to a shoot-out on the imposing 1.3km
long final ascent of the Mur de Huy (wall of Huy).
It's a climb that requires riders to manage
their effort, something Spanish veteran Valverde has done to perfection three
He holds the record for the joint most wins
at the Fleche with four other riders, including Belgian great Eddy Merckx.
But Australian Michael Matthews will be
amongst a posse of young pretenders looking to strip Valverde of his crown.
Matthews, 25, finished fifth at Sunday's
Amstel Gold, the first of the three Ardennes Classics, and the Orica-GreenEdge
rider has been in fine form since a great start to the season at Paris-Nice
Perhaps the most complete of the young
challengers is Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, who was second to Valverde at both
the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year.
The 23-year-old was suffering from
mononucleosis over winter but has come back into form at just the right time,
finishing sixth at Amstel.
Belgian Tim Wellens, 24, who made a daring
solo attack 7km from the end of the Amstel Gold race before finishing 10th, and
Czech Petr Vakoc, 23, winner of the Brabantse Pijl race, could also both
feature, as could 24-year-old Dane Michael Valgren, second to veteran Italian
Enrico Gasparotto at Amstel.
Valverde will start as favourite, not least
due to the form he showed in winning the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon last week.
However, the 35-year-old's main target this
year is the Giro d'Italia next month so he has been concentrating on stage
racing rather than one-day classics.
He skipped Amstel, where he was second last
year, in order to take part at the Tour of Castile and Leon.
He also won the Vuelta a Andalucia in
February but despite his lack of one-day practise, he has the experience to
know when and where to attack on the Huy climb.
Another veteran who should feature is
Joaquim Rodriguez, who claimed victory on the Mur de Huy during last year's
Tour de France when the third stage finished there.
A renowned puncher, Rodriguez won the
Fleche Wallonne in 2012 but his inability to win more than just the one
Ardennes Classic is a source of some mystery.