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A short, sharp shock: celebrating the Mur de Huy

21 Apr 2021

It may be only a fraction over 1km long, but the Mur de Huy in Belgium has crushed the will of many a cyclist – pro and amateur alike

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

If you were writing a manual on how to win on the Mur de Huy at the end of La Flèche Wallonne – the Walloon Arrow – spring Classic, then you might well scribble down three general rules.

First, make sure you are among the leading 10 riders through the climb’s famous S-bend. Second, never make the first attack, be patient, hold your fire longer than you think. Third, be Alejandro Valverde or Anna van der Breggen.

I realise that this won’t be of much help to the non-pro hoping to tackle one of the most difficult climbs in Belgium (I fear deed poll won’t have any effect on your watts).

For mere mortals it is simply hard from the start, then it gets harder and after that you’re just hanging on to the point where even the flatter bit at the end feels like it’s mocking you.

It’s a climb that is so steep there really is no easy way up it. A long Alpine climb can often be tackled in a gear that allows you to spin and just take your time. The Mur de Huy is simply too steep for any gear to be easy.

For the love of God

Although the pros start climbing from the centre of Huy, the real test begins as you turn off the Place St Denis and onto the Chemin des Chapelles. The name of the road translates as the ‘way of the chapels’ and indeed there are six of them, ending with the church of Notre-Dame de la Sarte at the top.

Since the 17th century there has been a festival once every seven years (the last one was in 2019) during which a statue of the Virgin Mary is taken from the church down to the town, via the chapels, where it’s venerated for nine days.

Anyway, at the bottom of this 900m pilgrimage the quixotic gradient actually looks relatively mild, which makes the fact that it is at least 10% feel even tougher on the legs.

Some rather pretty houses line the sides of the narrow road, giving it a slightly claustrophobic feeling initially, like you’re starting an effort from which there is no escape.

The first chapel is on the outside of the first corner and looks more like a large white porch. Don’t worry if you miss it because all the others look the same. As long as you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Next there’s a small chicane, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is the famous S-bend – that lies another couple of hundred metres up the road and when you reach it you’ll be in no doubt. The tarmac rears up viciously as the cooling towers of the Tihange nuclear power station emerge over the houses behind you.

If you’re on the inside of the left-hander the gradient is over 25%, so it’s unlikely you’ll clock the monument to Belgian former pro Claude Criquielion as you wrestle with your handlebars.

Criquielion won Flèche Wallonne in 1985, the first year the race finished on the Mur. Riding for the triple-barrelled Hitachi-Splendor-Sunair team, his victory was made even more special by the fact that he not only won solo but was wearing the World Champion’s rainbow stripes.

After finishing third in 1986 and second in 1987, Criquielion won again in 1989, this time attacking and distancing breakaway compatriot Steven Rooks on the very corner where the monument to him now stands.

Champions of Huy

Chapel number three is on the outside of the next right-hander, which signals the start of a more arboreal portion of the climb. For a few brief metres the incline eases, but this only serves to exacerbate the rise of the road afterwards as it curves left past chapel number four.

This is the stretch where someone is always tempted to hit out in a bid for glory, but the winner will invariably keep their powder dry.

Between 2014 and 2017 in the men’s race, that winner was exclusively a certain Spaniard, while a particular Netherlander has won the last five women’s editions. This sort of dominance has led some to label La Flèche Wallonne as too predictable, perhaps even the weakest in the Ardennes’ week that begins with the Amstel Gold Race and ends with Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Certainly the women’s race has seen several winning streaks, with Fabiana Luperini taking victory three times from 1998 (the first edition of La Flèche Wallonne Féminine) to 2002, Nicole Cooke winning three times between 2003 and 2006, Marianne Vos emerging victorious in five editions between 2007 and 2013, before Van der Breggen took on the baton in 2015.

Alejandro Valverde’s first win actually came in 2006, a whole eight years before his second. But then his has been an unusually long career (including a two-year absence from the sport that we won’t go into here).

Another Spaniard with a long career won on the Tour de France’s only stage finish up the Mur in 2015. Joaquim Rodríguez, pursued tenaciously by Chris Froome, went against convention and held on after attacking with about 300m to go.

Regardless of whether you’re racing or simply enjoying some recreation, those last few hundred metres must be some of the most interminable in cycling. The gradient remains constantly in the mid-teens and it seems to get longer between each white-painted Huy on the road, the three letter words looking like a staircase leading to the top.

At least if you’re only climbing it for fun you can enjoy the slight slackening of the incline as you pass the sixth chapel and head for the finish line. Yet if you’re racing or if you happen to be trying to beat the Strava KoM held by user ‘Bala 1’ (Valverde), this ‘easier’ last 100m brings its own torment.

It’s easy enough that you can change up a few gears if you’re chasing seconds, but you know to do so will sustain a pain that your legs and lungs could do without.

And then once you’ve crossed the line and rolled to a stop at the side of the road by the lime trees, you might just worry that the climb has taken as much of a mental toll as a physical one, because staring at you from over a hedge is a diplodocus.

The fact it’s standing in front of a ferris wheel doesn’t lend any more normality to the scene, but rest assured you’re simply looking at some of the taller attractions in an amusement park. If, like me, you start conflating the profile of the climb with the shape of the dinosaur’s long neck, it might be time to seek help.

To further perplex you and make you wonder if you have in fact battled up a mountain, there’s also a cable car station at the top of the climb. Sadly it was closed after an accident in 2012, but it rams home the point that while the Wall of Huy might be relatively short, it is also very sharp. An appropriate end to an arrow.