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Niewiadoma and Williams Survive Weather to Win the Brutal Flèche Wallonne

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

As the saying goes, Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. On the other hand, as Tony Soprano liked to say: “Whaddaya gonna do?”

This week’s cycling weather has been horrible, with heavy rain and wintry cold affecting Wednesday’s classic La Flèche Wallonne and stage 3 of the Tour des Alpes, even though the races were held 865km apart. The good news is that, though both races went up and down some tricky mountains, no one suffered a serious crash. And some riders even flourished in the wet and the cold, especially Stephen Williams of Israel–Premier Tech.

The 27-year-old Welshman survived very cold temperatures, wind, rain, snow and even hail, as well as the short but brutal Mur de Huy (1.3km @ 9.4%, with ramps up to 19%), to win a very demanding Flèche and secure the biggest victory of his career. He also became the first British winner of the race.

Williams was part of a group of about 20 riders with cold and tired legs who struggled up the final ascent of the Huy, which was climbed four times during the race, including to the finish line. He rocketed out of the group with 300m to go and was able to just hold off a desperate effort by Kévin Vauquelin (ARKEA–B&B Hotels), with Maxim Van Gils (Lotto Dstny) finishing third, 3 seconds adrift.

“I’m exhausted,” a very tired-looking Williams said. “To win bike races is hard, especially here in these classics. It’s wonderful to be the first British winner of this race. I’ve been watching this race for a number of years and I know the class and the prestige of this race. To come to the Ardennes and win La Flèche is really special.”

Williams, who earlier this year won the Tour Down Under, went on to say, “I do enjoy racing in this weather. I saw the 300 meter to go [sign] and thought that if I could get a jump and 5 seconds on the others I might be able to hold on.” That is precisely what happened.

Stephen Williams
This week’s cycling weather has been horrible, with heavy rain and wintry cold affecting Wednesday’s classic La Flèche Wallonne. © Profimedia 

Earlier Søren Kragh Andersen had tried to do imitate  his Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate Mathieu van der Poel by making a solo run to victory with about 60km to go in the 198.6km race. The 29-year-old Dane built a lead of 1:25 over a reduced peloton and looked strong for a while. But Kragh Anderson is not Mathieu van der Poel, and his valiant effort ended with 14.5km to go as the peloton swept past him.

By that point the two race favorites, Tom Pidcock (INEOS Grenadiers) and Mathias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek), as well as their teams and several other squads were no longer in the race. They had folded their sails when the weather got serious and simply dismounted from their bikes, apparently preferring to save themselves for Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This included UAE Team Emirates and its champions, Marc Hirschi, Juan Ayuso and Brandon McNulty, as well as all of the INEOS Grenadiers. Only 44 riders of the 175 on the start list finished the race.

To get an idea of just how harsh conditions were, watch this video on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, showing a suffering Skjelmose being carried from his bike to somewhere warm.

As for stage 3 of the Tour des Alpes, where the weather was very bad but not apocalyptic, that was won by Juan Pedro López (Lidl-Trek). The Spaniard broke away from the peloton with Giulio Pellizzari (VF Group–Bardiani CSF–Faizanè) with 27km to go in the 124.8km stage. He dropped his companion of convenience on the second, and final, ascent of the Pillberg (3.2km @ 9.9%) and soloed to victory to take over the GC lead. Pellizzari finished second, at 22 seconds, with former race leader Tobias Foss (INEOS Grenadiers) completing the podium, 38 seconds adrift. The race ends on Friday.

The Mur de Huy was also conquered by Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), who accelerated with 200m to go on the climb and rode away from Demi Vollering (SD Worx-Protime) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Lidl-Trek) to register her first road race victory since her triumph in the women’s Amstel Gold Race in 2019.

“It means a lot,” Niewiadoma said after the race. “I really hope that with that victory I inspired a lot of people who are pursuing their dreams for so long, because I’ve experienced a lot of failures, a lot of second and third places. But I never stopped believing that as a team we could win another race. So I do really hope that that race will inspire people to just keep believing, keep pursuing their dreams, because the reward is always there waiting for us.”

Vollering finished second, at 2 seconds, while Longo Borghini completed the podium, 4 seconds adrift. The victory is also sweet revenge for the 29-year-old Polish rider, who was pipped at the finish by Longo Borghini in the Tour of Flanders at the end of March.