April 24, 2011 4 Comments
The irresistible Philippe Gilbert crowned himself King of the Classics as he rode a perfectly judged race to complete the triple crown of the 2011 Ardennes Classics. Having won Amstel Gold last Sunday and Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, he outwitted everything the fraternal combination of Andy and Fränk Schleck could throw at him to take a surprisingly easy victory in the 97th running of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
First run in 1892, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest of cycling’s Classics, and is traditionally a race dominated by Belgians – including five by the incomparable Eddy Merckx - although Gilbert’s victory here was the first by a ‘home’ rider since 1999. Even more fittingly, he comes from the small village of Remouchamps near the bottom of the Côte de la Redoute, one of the race’s key climbs, so this is very much his ‘local’ race.
The race route covers a 255.5km out-and-back loop starting in Liège and finishing in nearby Ans. The outward leg is a largely straight, flat blast, while the return leg is anything but level, with nine of the race’s ten climbs occurring in the final 100km, including the Côte de Stockeu (a 1.0 km climb with a dizzying average gradient of 12.2%) and then, in the final 35km, the three closing ascents of the Côte de la Redoute (2.0 km, 8.8%), Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (1.5 km, 9.5%) and Côte de Saint-Nicolas (1.2km, 8.3%). The summit of the Saint-Nicolas is located just 5.5km from the finish line, with the last 1.5km a steady incline which stretches already tired legs to their limit.
Ten riders escaped early on, building an advantage of nearly four minutes at Bastogne as Gilbert’s Omega Pharma-Lotto team worked hard at the front of the peloton to keep the gap under control. A few riders attempted solo attacks off the front of the peloton on the Stockeu climb, but the Schlecks’ Leopard-Trek team helped to keep everyone together. However, a subsequent attack on the Haute-Levée, combined with a few riders dropping off the initial breakaway, eventually resulted in a 13-man group forming at the front which pushed out a lead of 1:43 as they approached the Redoute, the eighth of ten climbs. Again Leopard-Trek came to the front to lead the chase, shaving a minute off the gap to the leaders as that group started to disintegrate on the climb.
The decisive attack, however, occurred on the penultimate ascent of the Faucons, as the Schleck brothers accelerated away from the front of the peloton. Only Gilbert was alert enough to go with them, as all the other favourites were left floundering in their wake, their potential threat nullified. Only defending champion Alexandre Vinokourov, who suffered a broken derailleur almost simultaneous to the attack at the front and had to change bikes, had any real excuse for missing out.
The trio quickly swallowed up the remnants of the breakaway group ahead of them, with only Greg Van Avermaet able to latch on as they whipped past. As they sped towards the final climb of the Saint-Nicolas, the quartet’s advantage continued to extend – 30 seconds, 40, then 50 – big enough to confirm the peloton as a non-factor in terms of contesting the win, but near enough to not allow the leaders to slacken their pace too much.
With Van Avermaet effectively a passenger at the back of the front group, Gilbert and both Schlecks maintained a decent but watchful tempo most of the way up the climb, with no one willing to make the first move. This was surprising given the brothers’ numerical advantage, and also the fact that every pedal stroke gave Van Avermaet, the best sprinter of the four, a growing glimmer of hope.
In the end it was Gilbert who made his move first, digging hard near the summit of the climb. It was a later and less savage acceleration than his ultimately unsuccessful atttack last year, but it was more than enough to shake off Van Avermaet immediately and, a short distance later Andy Schleck also started to lose touch. Once over the top, he did manage to regain touch with the lead pair, but it was a clear indication that he was only going to be of limited help to his brother.
Nonetheless, Fränk had the luxury of sitting back while Gilbert and his brother took turns at the front to maintain the buffer over the chasing pack. But even with that additional advantage, both Schlecks were powerless as Gilbert was able to time his effort on the long uphill finish, leaving his finishing kick until the final 150 metres and easing far enough clear that he was able to start celebrating 50 metres before the line.
Victory meant Gilbert completed a hat-trick of Ardennes Classics wins – a feat which has only been accomplished once before, in 2004 by the now banned Davide Rebellin. It rounds off an incredible fortnight in which he also won Flèche Brabançonne, meaning he has won the four most prominent Ardennes races, something which has never been done before.
For Gilbert, this win meant more to him than any of his others:
For me, it was an exceptional day. It was something I dreamed about and I was able to win. It’s simply something fantastic, one of the best moments of my sporting career.
And Andy Schleck graciously acknowledged that the best man had prevailed:
He was stronger than us today, there was nothing we could do. He was cool and collected. He’s classy.
However, although the Schlecks were outfought, out-thought and surprisingly passive in the closing kilometres, both will be happy with their form as they build towards July’s Tour de France. For Gilbert, however, his 2011 season has already exceeded even his own expectations. Four dominant wins in the Ardennes in two weeks – we may never see dominance such as this in the spring Classics season again. The man is a machine.
1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 6:13:18
2. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) same time
3. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) s/t
4. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) +0:24
5. Rigoberto Urán (Sky) s/t
6. Chris Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) s/t
7. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) +0:27
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:29
9. Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) + 0:39
10. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) s/t
2011 ‘Five Monuments’ recaps:
2011 Ardennes Classics:
- Philippe Gilbert wins Liege-Bastogne-Liege (theglobeandmail.com)
- Unstoppable Gilbert in a class of his own at Flèche Wallonne (thearmchairsportsfan.com)