Stat Attack: Do you need experience to win in the Ardennes?

Cillian Kelly looks at the trends – and exceptions – of the winners in the hilly Spring Classics

Clock18:05, Thursday 18th April 2024
Stevie Williams and Kasia Niewiadoma both won Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, with totally different histories in the race

© Getty Images

Stevie Williams and Kasia Niewiadoma both won Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, with totally different histories in the race

La Flèche Wallonne is a race which takes years to learn. It requires several instances of failure before a rider cracks the code and knows what is involved in conquering the Mur de Huy. Positioning at the foot of the climb must be perfect. Patience is the most important of virtues. Knowing when to fire your single bullet. Timing must be impeccable. Only then will a rider be rewarded after the slowest bunch sprint in cycling.

This school of progression can be seen in the previous results of most of those who have won here. Cadel Evans finished 9th, 5th and 2nd before he finally won it as world champion in 2010. Julian Alaphilippe had to get through getting it slightly wrong twice as he finished runner-up in 2015 and 2016 before finally piecing the puzzle together and becoming a three-time winner. Dan Martin, achingly, managed a 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd place throughout his career but never quite got there before time and retirement caught up with him.

As with any rule there are exceptions. In this case there are very few. Marc Hirschi appeared on the start line in 2020 having never ridden the race before and he won it. He was the first rider to win on their debut since Michele Dancelli in 1966.

And now, we’ve found another exception to the rule – Stevie Williams. Unlike Hirschi, Williams has had experience of this race before. Prior to this week he had taken part three times with a best effort of 99th in 2022. His two other appearances yielded a 116th and a DNF – not exactly the annual progression of Cadel Evans.

Read more: La Flèche Wallonne: Stevie Williams wins atop Mur de Huy in apocalyptic conditions

Since the finish of the race was placed atop the Mur de Huy in 1985, Hirschi is the only winner who hadn’t previously finished in the top 40. Every other winner since 2007 had already managed a top 10, and all but three of them had previously finished on the podium. Williams has bucked the trend.

He’s done so in more ways than one as he is also now the first ever British winner of the men’s race. The best previous British result at Flèche Wallonne had come via Tom Simpson who managed third place in 1965, the year he became world champion.

Williams’s win was preceded by Tom Pidcock’s win at Amstel Gold Race, another race which had never seen a men’s winner from Great Britain before. Now with Liège-Bastogne-Liège looming, there’s a chance for British riders to win all three ‘Ardennes’ races with three different riders. This hasn’t been done by any nation since 1971 when the Belgian trio of classics legends Frans Verbeeck, Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx got the victories. Although it is hard to see which third British rider might shine at Liège this Sunday. Simon Yates maybe? Ben Tulett?

Read more: Preview: Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2024

We know now that there won’t be any Ardennes triples achieved by any single rider in 2024. This is something that has been done on the men’s side twice – by the late Davide Rebellin in 2004 and by Philippe Gilbert in 2011. Tadej Pogačar was two for two last year before he crashed out of Liège, robbing himself of a potential triple and robbing us all of a mouth-watering showdown between himself and Remco Evenepoel.

A shorter history, but similar trend in women's races

On the women’s side, this triple has been done twice, by Demi Vollering just last year and by Anna van der Breggen in 2017. In the year of Van der Breggen, astonishingly and extremely neatly if you like this kind of thing, all three races finished with identical podiums – Van der Breggen in first, Lizzie Deignan in second and Kasia Niewiadoma in third.

After getting very familiar with the podium for the last few years, Niewiadoma has done it now. She won La Flèche Wallonne, a long-awaited victory. She is no longer incurably suffering on the lower steps of the podium.

Her record at Flèche Wallonne was even more agonising than Dan Martin’s. She had previously managed 15th, 12th, 11th, 10th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd before finally mastering the Mur de Huy. It was her first win since a stage of the Women’s Tour nearly five years ago. For a rider who is constantly at the front of the biggest bike races in the world, that is a very long time to endure without a win.

During those five years she finished 94 races in the top 10 including 14 third places and 16 second places. Now she moves on to Liège with a chance to become just the third rider after Van der Breggen and Demi Vollering to win all three races across their careers.

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