Wednesday is farmers’ market day in Huy. The streets are full of people and cars.
The barbecues are firing up on the street. Is it chestnuts? Is it some fancy walloon delicacy? No it’s snags and they are having a sausage sizzle. They start before 10 am and are still barbecuing after the race finishes.
But the Fleche Wallonne adds an extra dimension to this market day in April. Plenty of people are getting veggies at the market but bike riders and cycling lovers are heading up the famed Mur du Wuy.
The lower slopes are gently enough, easy walking. The arch holding up the flamme rouge is being pumped up. Only a kilometre to go, can’t be too bad.
Plenty of local riders test themselves against the infamous mur. There’s something compelling about its murderous slope that draws you up. But once is enough for me.
The going gets progressively harder, and then the last few hundred metres the slope assumes its true vicious bent. It’s quite appropriate that there are stations of the cross along the way.
The Mur du Huy is 1.3 km at an average of 9.3% but 900 metres is at 11.6% and some parts are a mind-altering 19%.
The riders do this three times for god’s sake. No wonder the race is under 200 km, this year 194 km. And why so many fans turn out early to get a good spot – 2 hours before they are due to get to this point for the first time.
The first climb is at 70 km into the race. The last two are pushed together at 163 km and as the finish line at 194 km.
And at the top for the first pass, the overwhelming noise just past the finish line is the sound of gears changing and it’s not a pretty tune. It’s still uphill from here but it’s not quite in the same league.
Still the riders will at least be warm after the climb. The exposed area there is freezing for spectators though the crowds do help.
It’s not just the slope that challenges the riders; the winding narrow road is also a factor.
After he won this race in 2010 Cadel Evans talked about the final ascent.
“It’s always a difficult thing to judge, this climb,” he said. “I’ve tried different things, tried early and waited late.”
He acknowledged the luck factor once riders have made it to the bottom of the final ascent.
“I wouldn’t say there is a secret to the Mur de Huy because every time we get here there is a completely different rhythm and a completely different combination of riders. It’s being lucky, and not getting closed in at the bottom.”
The course changes slightly each year and since 1990 has been at around 200 km rather than the 250 km it had averaged before.
“For me it was the same, there’s lots of hills and we’re going to arrive at the Mur de Huy. Different ingredients but the same recipe.”
Evans is not racing this year with his well-documented sinus condition, neither is Simon Gerrans, who also struggles with hay fever at this time of the year. The Australian field is slim and probably won’t feature atop the mur come finish time. Even Green Edge is only fielding three Australian in its eight man lineup.
But whoever crosses that line first, will have a treasured victory.