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

In the toughest edition of the race seen in decades, wind, rain and snow make for an attritional affair, as Kévin Vauquelin and Maxim Van Gils finish second and third

Clock14:21, Wednesday 17th April 2024
Stevie Williams had shown himself as the day's strongest rider on the penultimate ascent, before crossing the finish line full of emotion at the end

© Getty Images

Stevie Williams had shown himself as the day's strongest rider on the penultimate ascent, before crossing the finish line full of emotion at the end

Stevie Williams of Israel-Premier Tech produced a lung-busting effort to win La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday afternoon, attacking with 275m to go on the final ascent of the iconic Mur de Huy.

His initial acceleration was almighty and saw him develop an unassailable gap to his rivals behind, with Williams spluttering before the line but having opened up enough of an advantage to see him to the biggest win of his career to date.

Behind Williams, Arkéa-B&B Hotels' Kévin Vauquelin took second place, with Lotto Dstny's Maxim Van Gils rounding out the day's podium in third.

Earlier in the day, the miserable conditions had torn the race to shreds as various teams looked to make the action as difficult as possible. Between their pace-setting, crosswinds and intense rainfall, many of the day's big favourites such as Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates), Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek) were ridden out of contention.

In advance of the final ascent of the Mur de Huy, the work of Uno-X Mobility and Visma-Lease a Bike was crucial for ensuring the winner would be decided from a reduced peloton.

"What a day, what a day, I am so happy right now. I can't believe I've just won Flèche. I've been watching this race for years and I've always wanted to come here with decent legs to try and win it," Williams said after the finish.

"I do enjoy racing in this kind of weather and to come away with the victory, I am just over the moon. The boys backed me all day and gave me the best chance to try and do a result today.

"[I am] lost for words, quite emotional really. It's a really hard sport and to win bike races is hard, especially here in the Classics."

Breakaway makes hay whilst the sun shines

There was no shortage of action early in the day, with a host of riders looking to escape the peloton within minutes of the flag drop. As was to be expected, the UCI ProTeams were most active in trying to send their riders up the road and gain some time in front of the cameras, but there was some engagement from a couple of WorldTeams as well.

Cycling's top tier was represented by Lilian Calmejane (Intermarché-Wanty) and Igor Chzhan (Astana Qazaqstan), both of whom were on the front foot within a few kilometres. The pair were followed by Alan Jousseaume (TotalEnergies), James Whelan (Q36.5 Pro Cycling) and Txomin Juaristi (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

The breakaway was soon padded out by the addition of Johan Meens of Bingoal WB. His teammate Aaron Van der Beken had also tried to bridge across but came up short and with Meens up the road, their team was represented. The 24-year-old was ultimately the only Belgian in a breakaway of six riders who were soon given a gap of several minutes by the content peloton behind.

Their day looked relatively tranquil ahead, with blue skies basking overhead and a healthy gap of almost five minutes holding steady for some 70km. However, things took a drastic turn as the race headed towards the final 100km of action.

Several favourites spat from the pack under torrential rain pour

The heavens opened and sent down wind, hail and even snow for the next few hours, as Flèche Wallonne was torn apart in scenes not witnessed for over 20 years. Sensing an opportunity to make the race incredibly difficult, Domen Novak and UAE Team Emirates set a blistering pace over the Côte d'Ereffe and as crosswinds lashed the peloton, the pack began to splinter.

Out the back went the likes of Romain Grégoire (Groupama-FDJ), Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Matthews (Jayco AlUla), whilst Chzhan had seen enough out front and succumbed to the peloton behind. With the pace up and the race well and truly on with over 75km to ride, EF Education-EasyPost helped to drive the pace at the front of the peloton and one by one, some of the race's big favourites began to accept defeat.

Dylan Teuns (Israel-Premier Tech) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) were two of the first to be dropped in the miserable conditions, soon followed by Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers). Groupama-FDJ added their riders to the front of the peloton and the breakaway was soon caught amidst the melee.

Heading into the final 60km, the peloton had been reduced in numbers significantly and was without two more big favourites in the forms of Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates) and Mauri Vansevenant (Soudal Quick-Step) - meaning that the first four finishers from last weekend's Amstel Gold Race had all been eschewed from the front of proceedings.

In the absence of any form of control, attacks were frequent off the front of the peloton as the race entered its final 50km. Søren Kragh Andersen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) attacked and went solo, probably in the hope of staying warm as much as anything else, such was the state of the weather in Belgium.

With the rain unabating, Tiesj Benoot (Visma-Lease a Bike) struggled to pull a pair of gloves over his frozen hands and Stevie Williams was regularly filmed shaking his hands in an effort to get the blood pumping. This had quickly turned into the most attritional Flèche Wallonne race seen in decades.

Kragh Andersen kicks on

Kilometre by kilometre, Kragh Andersen's opportunistic move began to look smarter and smarter as his gap to the peloton extended. The Dane was able to develop a gap of over a minute to the reduced peloton and his form was so good that he became the first rider to take off his rain jacket. Pushing on alone, he entered the penultimate ascent of the Mur de Huy with a 1:24 gap.

His gap remained at a healthy 1:10 as he crested the Mur de Huy for the first time, with Williams pressing on from the peloton behind.

Williams looked the best over the penultimate ascent but slotted into place within a chasing group of five that also included Richard Carapaz (EF Education-EasyPost), Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain Victorious), Kévin Vauquelin (Arkéa-B&B Hotels) and Maxim Van Gils (Lotto Dstny).

Uno-X Mobility and Visma-Lease a Bike mobilised behind and as the final 20km came into view, Kragh Andersen's advantage hung in the balance at 21 seconds to the chasing five and 45 seconds to the peloton. His dreams were soon quashed, though, with Uno-X Mobility driving the peloton back to the chasers and the race was back together at the front with 14.5km to ride.

The Scandinavian team was keen to go on the attack in advance of the final ascent of the Mur de Huy, but Tim van Dijke marshalled the front of the peloton along with his Visma-Lease a Bike teammate, Johannes Staune-Mittet. Their belief in Tiesj Benoot's chances was strong.

The Mur de Huy was to decide the winner, with Williams launching his move with a little under 300m to ride. He was smart enough to gather a buffer heading into the final metres, where his legs tired but his gap had earned him a memorable victory. Vauquelin and Van Gils surged for the podium, but could not gain enough ground on the day's winner.

For the latest news, interviews and analysis from the world of professional cycling, be sure to check out the Racing tab on the GCN website and visit our essential guide to The Spring Classics to stay up to date with all of the action from cycling's most exciting season.

Race Results

1

gb flag

WILLIAMS Stephen

Israel-Premier Tech

4H 40' 24"

2

fr flag

VAUQUELIN Kévin

ARKEA-B&B HOTELS

"

3

be flag

VAN GILS Maxim

Lotto Dstny

+ 3"

4

fr flag

COSNEFROY Benoît

Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team

"

5

co flag

BUITRAGO Santiago

Bahrain Victorious

"

6

no flag

JOHANNESSEN Tobias Halland

Uno-X Mobility

+ 10"

7

fr flag

GRÉGOIRE Romain

Groupama-FDJ

"

8

fr flag

GODON Dorian

Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team

"

9

be flag

BENOOT Tiesj

Team Visma | Lease a Bike

"

10

fr flag

MARTIN Guillaume

Cofidis

"

Provided by FirstCycling

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