Anna van der Breggen has delivered a unique performance on Wednesday by winning the Fleche Wallonne for the fourth time in a row. The Olympic champion was once again too fast for her competitors on the Mur de Huy, but had to keep pushing to the finish line this year. Megan Guarnier also delivered a strong performance and got to step onto the podium in third place.
The victory came after a couple of difficult days for the Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team, shaken by the events of Monday morning, when mechanic Richard Steege had a heart attack. Due to the rapid action of medical staff that was around, he was quickly transported to the hospital. On Wednesday morning, shortly before the start of the stage, he awoke. This victory is of course dedicated to him.
"It has been a difficult week for us and we hope that everything will be alright," said Van der Breggen. "Richard is with us at every race and does everything for us. This victory is for him."
After the start this morning at 10.45 am CET, Boels-Dolmans kept control of the race for a long time. Potentially dangerous escapees weren’t allowed off the front. Eventually, Doris Schweizer (Virtu Cycling) attacked, the first rider to stay away. After some time, she got company of four others, Ane Santesteban (Ale Cipollini), Omer Shapira (Cylance Pro Cycling), Tereza Medvedova (BePink) and Dalia Muccioli (Valcar-PBM).
The four reached Schweizer at 56 kilometers from the finish line and at the foot of the first climb of the day, the Côte d'Ereffe, their lead was 1'37 ". Medvedova was dropped from the lead group on that climb and at the bottom of the next climb, the Côte de Cherave, the others were reeled back in by the peloton too.
On this second climb, an important new lead group was formed, with Janneke Ensing (Ale Cipollini) and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Canyon-SRAM) pushing the pace on the climb. Guarnier and Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) were the only two riders who could follow and the new front group had emerged.
"The tactics started earlier this year because of the altered course, that's why this group got away," explained Van der Breggen. "It was really good to have Megan there. It was a good situation for us, we didn’t do anything in the back and Megan tried to save energy in the break. I hoped the group would stick.”
The four riders worked well together and reached the foot of the final ascent of the Mur de Huy with a 20-second advantage. There the group got shattered, the peloton caught up with them and it was everyone for themselves on this final climb.
"Megan had already done some 30 kilometres up front and you know that's already in her legs," said Van der Breggen. "So she did a great job to finish third. When Ashley [Moolman-Pasio, Cervélo-Bigla] accelerated, she appeared very strong today. I tried to follow her and hoped I had something left in the final sprint.”
Van der Breggen managed to overtake Moolman-Pasio on the ascent, but she did force Van der Breggen to sprint all the way to the finish line. According to the Olympic champ, it was the hardest fight for the win of all four victories. Behind her, Moolman-Pasio finished second, while Guarnier was the last one out of the lead group who was able to stay close to the front, finishing third.
With this win, Van der Breggen completes a quartet of Fleche Wallonne victories. Yet she must admit that it’s not even her favourite race.
"I always hated this race," laughed Van der Breggen. "Because the Mur is not nice to do, I mean it's really hard. But in fact, I started to love it more and more. It 's a hard race and it' s painful, but I try to enjoy it more and see the good things of it. And it makes a good race, it’s exciting. Especially how they made the circuit this year, it’s really beautiful. It’s not comparable to any other race.”
With her victory, Van der Breggen also takes back the lead in the Women's WorldTour from teammate Chantal Blaak, who didn’t start in the Fleche Wallonne. So Van der Breggen will start in Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the purple leader's jersey.