The 2024 edition of La Flèche Wallonne will go down in history. Towards the Mur de Huy, tackled four times this Wednesday, the riders endured terrible weather conditions. Rain, hail, cold, and even snow followed them in Belgium, which led to a much more selective race than usual. Active in the second part of the race, the Groupama-FDJ cycling team could still count on Romain Grégoire and Valentin Madouas in the final time up the Mur de Huy, where everything was decided. The young man fought hard to enter the top-10 (7th) for his first participation while the French champion took 15th place. The last “Ardennes Classic” will come on Sunday, with Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

A brand-new route was set to welcome the riders this Wednesday on the 88th Flèche Wallonne. With the Cherave climb being removed, the final circuit “just” included the climbs of Ereffe (2.2 km at 5.4%) and of the Mur de Huy (1.3 km at 9.8 %). On the other hand it had to be completed four times. While the route seemed slightly easier on paper, the race promised to be way harder this year due to threatening weather forecasts. “In the first 80 kilometers, we actually thought we were lucky not to have seen a raindrop,” smiled Romain Grégoire. “We even had a glimpse of sunshine.” Lilian Calmejane, Alan Jousseaume, Igor Chzhan, James Whelan, Johan Meens and Txomin Juaristi took advantage of this mild start to the race to gain a four-minute lead, but a major turning point occurred after two hours of racing. “It happened suddenly, as we entered the circuit,” said Benoît Vaugrenard. “In just five kilometers, we went from 11 to 2 degrees. It became apocalyptic. We knew it was going to rain. What we didn’t imagine was hail and snow.” More than a hundred kilometres from the finish, the peloton found itself ‘attacked’ by the elements. “We expected rain, and we had planned everything for it, but to experience hail and snow so hard and suddenly, it surprised everyone, me included,” added Valentin. “Honestly, it was incredible,” said Romain Grégoire.

“We wanted to be involved in the fight quite early”, Benoît Vaugrenard

The bunch therefore had to deal with a whole new difficulty. “I don’t think many riders handled it well today,” added the young Frenchman. “Personally, I paid for my lack of experience. I took the start being well covered, and I was too hot for two hours. Then, I took off some layers before the circuit, thinking that the fight was about to start, and I found myself freezing.” “It was just about the layers,” confirmed Benoît. “Many got caught off guard, like the UAE team who took off some clothes to make the race hard. In the end, they all abandoned. This weather eliminated a lot of riders.” “Covering the tips is the most important thing to be able to keep the heat,” said Valentin Madouas. This was actually why David Gaudu was distanced more than 70 kilometres from the finish. “It proved hard for those who kept the short gloves, like David,” said Benoît. “He was literally freezing.” Like many big favorites, the man from Brittany had to let the peloton slip away, while his teammates took the lead. “We wanted to be involved in the fight quite early if it rained, because we knew it was going to be chaos,” Benoît added. “As soon as it rains here, it’s freezing. Even if it meant sacrificing teammates, we absolutely had to be at the front, because we saw that we were losing groups of thirty guys on the descents. I think we did well. We saved a few riders this way. It allowed us to go quite far in the race, to have numbers. It was good.”

“It was just survival”, Benoît Vaugrenard

Following Clément Russo and Lorenzo Germani’s turns, Rémy Rochas took over in the second of the four climbs of the Mur de Huy and made it harder. At the top, his French champion teammate opened up the race. “I got into the action with two laps to go,” said Valentin. “I might have left some energy at that point, but I felt good, and I still had something left in the tank.” He tried again later, but Soren Kragh Andersen eventually broke away alone from the first bunch of around thirty riders. The Dane gradually increased his gap while Quentin Pacher came back from behind, just like Romain Grégoire did with 45 kilometers to go. “For two laps, I couldn’t do anything,” the young man said. “After being left behind in the Mur de Huy, I managed to grab a jacket from the team car, and from there it was a little better. But we fought more against the cold than against the others today.” “It came down to courage,” confirmed Benoît. “It was just survival. Romain was frozen, but he fought really well with Lorenzo, and they made it back. Well done to them.” Starting the penultimate climb of the Mur de Huy, Groupama-FDJ therefore had five riders in a reduced peloton. Yet, none of them was able to follow the attacks at the hardest part of the slope, and a dangerous five-man group positioned itself ahead for fifteen kilometers in the last lap.

“I look forward to coming back in future years”, Romain Grégoire

After the group was caught, the lone leader was also reeled in on the Ereffe climb. Despite some accelerations, the peloton remained together to head towards the final ascent of the Mur de Huy. Only thirty riders were still in the running, including Valentin Madouas and Romain Grégoire. Before the last 1300 metres averaging 9.3%, and some slopes exceeding 20%, the French duo tried to position for the final battle. “I was really like a diesel engine on the last climb,” explained Romain. “My feet were so cold that I was struggling to make an effort. The more we moved up the climbs, the warmer I got and the better I felt, but therefore, I was not very well positioned at the foot, so it was not possible to fight in front.” Slightly in the back with his teammate when Stephen Williams made his decisive move with 300 metres remaining, Romain Grégoire still gave everything to reach the summit as fast as possible. On the line, this resulted in a seventh place. “When I think that I exploded the first time up the Mur, it’s not bad,” he smiled. “Considering the conditions, it’s a good result. It’s a climb that I didn’t know but which I really like. I kind of regret not having been able to make my maximum effort because I fought more against the conditions than against the climb. But I look forward to coming back in future years.”

Valentin Madouas struggled a bit more and took 15th place. “In the last lap, I felt like I was empty,” he said. “I had no more energy. I fought with what I had left.” “I am satisfied,” concluded Benoît. “We were in the mix, in the fight. We were still almost complete when many teams had almost no one left. We fought well, and the team was up there.” And will try to repeat it on Sunday, on Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

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