After 260km a large group of riders started the final climb of the Cauberg together. The Italians set the pace but Philippe Gilbert accelerates and nobody can match him. His eyes are fixed the road ahead whilst behind Edvald Boasson Hagen hunches low on his bike and Alexandr Kolobnev cannot follow. Gilbert reaches the top of the Cauberg first and, aided by a tailwind, speeds at 6okm/h to win solo. This was the moment the race was won.
The race started out with a 100km loop around the Limburg area, a region where the roads have more furniture than Ikea. The pace was fast from the start but luckily there were few crashes despite the obstacles. Jeremy Roy and Bertjan Lindeman were the first to go clear. Meanwhile Oscar Freire crashed, the most stealthy of riders, you normally only see him with 250 metres to go but there he was with 250km go.
Attacks followed and it took a while before a group with Lastras (Spain), Cataldo (Italy), Duggan (USA), Howes (USA), Coppel (France), Anacona (Colombia), Mezgec (Slovenia), Isaichev (Russia), Buts (Ukraine), Ferrari (Uruguay) and Kangert (Estonia) got away. This was a strong group, normally you’d expect relatively unknown riders to go in the early move but Cataldo and Coppel are excellent riders and others are strong. Howes was replaying his Amstel move from April when he made the early break and survived with fellow neo-pro Romain Bardet until the penultimate climb. Behind the British team were chasing with none other than Mark Cavendish setting the pace, a proud way to relinquish his jersey until he abandoned with 110km to go. The race had averaged a speedy 44km/h.
A counter-attack had gone with Cummings (GB), Nocentini (Italy), Meersman (Belgium), Matthews (Australia), Bouet (France), Schär (SwitzerlandI), Beppu (Japan), Fuglsang (Denmark) and, the man who launched it, Flecha (Spain). The group were en chasse patate to use a French phrase that translates as “potato hunting” and means they were stuck in between the break and the bunch.
Then Contador launched a move with just over six laps to go. It wasn’t an attack, more than a sustained pull on the front.It had that accordion effect, you didn’t see much on the front but behind it stretched out the bunch and compressed the lungs of weaker riders. A wave of abandons followed. But it was on the following lap that El Pistolero took off the safety catch and shot up the Cauberg, taking a serious group with him. In the move was Voeckler (France), Gesink and de Kort (Netherlands), Tiernan-Locke (GB), Albasini (Switzerland), Ulissi and Marcato (Italy).
The Contador group gobbled the nine potato-hunters and then reached the 11 leaders, creating a large group that started to power away with five laps remaining. Behind the Australians were chasing the lead group had several riders sacrificing themselves for their leaders, like Coppel for Voeckler and Flecha for Contador meaning the gap was steady. Voeckler was up to his usual tricks, harassing others which words, fidgeting on the bike and constantly angling his head like a dog trying to catch a scent in the air. But eventually the group was caught by a persistent chase – unsung heroes like Kevin De Weert form part of Gilbert’s rainbow spectrum – and the bunch swelled even more when dropped riders began to come back whilst everyone watched each other.
Before the bell and attack from Kolobnev followed by Nibali drove a group away but it was reeled in. This wasn’t vintage racing, people won’t spend the winter reviewing the DVD but all the same it was exciting in nervous sense. With 10km to go it was still unpredictable. An attack, a sprint?
The race reached the final bend at the foot of the Cauberg and if the Italian’s led, it was ideal for Gilbert. Just as the Azzurri were redlining, Gilbert jumped and immediately got a noticeable gap. The power required to take just five seconds’ advantage was huge but Gilbert’s the kind of rider who for whom lactic acid is as troublesome as salad dressing. It was as if the finish had been designed by the Dutch for him. Only Boasson Hagen and Kolobnev were visible in their chase and they were joined by Alejandro Valverde. But Gilbert found the tailwind and was so far ahead he had time to sit up, enjoy the moment and celebrate.
The Rise of Gilbert
He turned 30 last summer but Gilbert’s talent has been known about for years. He impressed in the junior ranks and quickly gave up his horticulture apprenticeship to ride full-time.
He turned pro with FDJ in 2003. A Walloon, the French speaking team was an obvious pick but he also wanted to join a clean team at a time when the sport was riddled with dopage. He impressed from the start, collecting podium places in his first year and even fourth overall in the Tour de l’Avenir. He then continued an upward curve with an ever improving list of wins, first in the Tour Down Under and small French races and then a breakthrough in the 2006 Omloop Het Volk, winning after a long solo break. He left FDJ in 2008 after putting Tom Boonen to the sword in Paris-Tours, they escaped on the hills in the finish and Gilbert won, finishing a season packed with quality results.
2009 saw him move to Belgian squad Silence-Lotto and after a stage win in the Giro, finished the year with a remarkable series of the Coppa Sabatini, the Giro del Piemonte and the Giro di Lombardia with Paris-Tours inbetween. 2010 saw a win in the Amstel Gold (pictured, ahead of Enrico Gasparotto and Ryder Hesjedal). Gilbert’s mother-in-law is from the area and it’s proof that the Cauberg felt like home. He finished the year with another win in Lombardy again.
2011 was the magic season where phrases like “imperial” and “state of grace” come to mind. He won the Strade Bianche, was third in Milan-Sanremo and then he had an unbeatable streak with the Brabantse Piji, the Amstel, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège before winning the Tour of Belgium, becoming national champion, winning the opening stage of the Tour de France and the yellow jersey, winning the Clasic San Sebastian, becoming Belgian TT champion and taking his home GP Walonnie. And I’ve only listed the best wins.
By the start of 2012 Gilbert was the pick to win in Valkenberg. He’d come off a great season in 2011 and looked set to repeat this and add the rainbow jersey too. But nothing happened. There was talk of toothache, dental infections and antibiotics whilst some said his BMC bike didn’t fit him, others said marriage and his giant salary had made him soft. Either way he fell short and copped a lot of criticism in the Belgian press which takes cycling as serious as soccer; meanwhile Tom Boonen stormed the spring classics. Yet Gilbert came back for two stage wins in the Vuelta and ended up winning the worlds just as everyone expected nine months ago.
Ion like a Lion
Finally a word on how he does it. There’s probably nobody else in the bunch who can tolerate lactic acid like Gilbert. He attacks whilst others are asphyiated by anaerobia. Here’s his former coach from FDJ, Fred Grappe saying he’s one of the top two riders for “lactic explosiveness” (along with the Spanish strangler Joaquim Rodriguez)
Quel plaisir de revoir enfin “l’explosivité lactique” dévastatrice de Phil Gilbert. Les 2 meilleurs du monde dans cette qualité sont devant
— Fred Grappe (@fredgrappe) August 26, 2012
This is both inherited and trained. For years Gilbert has enjoyed finding a hill and powering over it. Normal, he was born near the foot of the Côte de La Redoute and in more recent times treats the steep hills behind Nice and Sanremo in the same way, accelerating on the hill to simulate attacks and sprints.
1 Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) 6:10:41
2 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway) 0:00:04
3 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spain) 0:00:05
4 John Degenkolb (Germany)
5 Lars Boom (Netherlands)
6 Allan Davis (Australia)
7 Thomas Voeckler (France)
8 Ramunas Navardauskas (Lithuania)
9 Sergio Luis Henao Montoya (Colombia)
10 Oscar Freire Gomez (Spain)