In an otherwise conservative race, Philippe Gilbert’s panache and strength at Amstel Gold were too much for his rivals.
Words by Lionel Birnie
Attempting to mount a convincing argument in favour of Philippe Gilbert’s decision-making in the final four kilometres of the Amstel Gold Race would be to stretch credibility to breaking point.
To say the least, it was unconventional. By trying to win the race, the Belgian risked losing in the most kamikaze fashion. Frustrated at Rabobank’s decision to sit on their hands, Gilbert took control and, as it turned out, he was able to take all, when it could quite easily have left him with nothing.
This was the sort of daredevil stuff that creates legends. As others sat and waited for what they must have thought was their optimum moment on the Cauberg, Gilbert did the riding of two men. He chased down Andy Schleck and then led himself out for his own sprint. Remarkable.
It is easy to see why Gilbert’s heroics are being celebrated. The 28-year-old has been in great form all season, winning the Montepaschi Strade Bianche at the beginning of last month, finishing third at Milan-San Remo and then taking the Brabantse Pijl, which has been transformed into a curtain-raiser for this week of three big Classics, ahead of Bjorn Leukemans.
However, as much as Gilbert’s decision to chase down Schleck himself looked foolhardy, it was in fact a supreme judgment of effort. Closing a gap that Schleck had managed to hold at around the 10-second mark for seven kilometres was not a foregone conclusion. And preserving enough strength to sprint on the Cauberg, a deceptively difficult climb upon which to finish a race, was a case of knowing instinctively the extent of his powers.
Now he has repeated last year’s Amstel Gold Race win, he must look to Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the race that drives him most. He has a home near Remouchamps, the village closest to La Redoute, the legendary climb. Victory in La Doyenne will confirm himself as the joint-best single day rider in the world, if there’s still any doubt. It’s tempting to conclude that together, Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara, the master of the cobbles, are two-thirds of the way towards being the equal of Eddy Merckx.
Gilbert’s panache at the end of the race was a saviour because this was not a race that covered many others – Schleck aside – in glory. Caution and reluctance were the watchwords.
The Amstel Gold Race is a test of nerve as much as strength. The nature of the roads in this southern corner of the Netherlands means that the riders have to be every bit as alert as they would on the cobbles further north and west. The Netherlands reveres the bike, with bike lanes for cyclists and traffic-calming measures to slow motor traffic, but it is precisely those obstacles that make racing on such roads so testing.
Relax for a moment and the riders will find themselves slamming on the brakes as the peloton screeches to a halt. The country lanes are extremely narrow and twisty, the towns and villages are littered with raised kerbs and islands. There isn’t a moment to switch off, which is what cracks a lot of riders.
It perhaps also explains why the race is often very controlled until the final 50 kilometres. For the armchair viewer, there was nothing to see until the final hour. Anyone who had got up early to watch the Formula One and hoped the cycling would maintain the excitement would probably have found themselves nodding off. This is part of the problem, if it can be termed as such, with all three of this week’s races. The action is distilled far more than at the cobbled Classics. It requires a change of pace, particularly in the wake of the thrilling events we have seen of late.
There was an early break, made by Thomas Degand of Veranda’s Willems, Albert Timmer of Skil-Shimano, Paolo De Negri of Farnese Vini and Simoni Ponzi of Liquigas. Tactically, this is significantly different to what we have watched recently. Whereas at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, some of the big teams wanted to get dangerous riders up the road to offer reinforcements later, there was none of that here. Instead, the powerful teams, Rabobank, Katusha and Omega Pharma in particular, wanted to save all their tricks for later.
The quartet gained a big gap, 11 minutes 40 seconds at its greatest, but with Rabobank taking the initiative in the bunch, that was cut drastically. With 90 kilometres to go, it was down to a much more manageable 2-45.
It is now a decade since Rabobank enjoyed a victory in their Classic. Every year the expectations are the same and every year they suffer the sense of obligation of being the home team. They’re not quite at the stage British tennis fans are with Wimbledon winners, but they must be regarding French Tour de France fans with increasing empathy in their wait for a home winner.
One of Rabobank’s Spanish riders, Carlos Barredo, attacked the bunch and bridged across the gap to the leaders – who were now down to just Degand and De Negri. Barredo joined them on the 24th of 32 climbs, the Bemelerberg, with 61 kilometres still to race. Shortly afterwards, the young Belgian with the HTC-Highroad squad, Jan Gyselinck, went across too. The ease with which he closed the gap showed that the pace had gone dropped at the front. The gap was under a minute.
Approaching the Wolfsberg climb, the 2009 winner Serguei Ivanov lifted the pace, prompting an immediate reaction. Katusha, despite having had a torrid week – with Alexandr Kolobnev, Mikhail Ignatiev and some of their other riders named as being at the heart of an investigation into doping in Italy – were nevertheless determined to race. It raised the uncomfortable question of how the race would deal with a controversial winner.
Between the Loorberg (climb 26) and the Gulperberg (27), the leading four were caught, partly as a result of a move by Quick Step’s Jérôme Pineau and Leopard’s Jakob Fuglsang.
The Gulperberg is the beginning of the end of the race. It is steep and quite long and from the top there are just 29 kilometres to go. Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland attacked, bypassing the Astana rider Maxim Iglinskiy, who was setting a decent pace.
Now the name of the game was trying to reduce the numbers at the front. Knowing that each climb would shear off a few more, the men at the front wanted to increase their odds of victory, while at the same time ensuring they had enough support from team-mates. It is this subtle balance of priorities that makes a race like Amstel so stop-start when the neutral observer is willing them to just attack, attack, attack.
With 23 kilometres left, Frank Schleck came to grief. The bunch, still huge and unwieldly, was a mass of nervous tension now. Riders on their last legs sensed the opportunity to hang in, while those with serious designs on winning were twitchy because of the size of the group. Schleck took his team-mate, Cancellara, down – or it was the other way round. Either way, two of Leopard’s top riders were tangled together on the floor. At the front, Leopard’s Fuglsang and Maxime Montfort went to the front and tried to keep a lid on things. Ah, the wonders of race radio.
On the Kruisberg, climb number 28, Omega Pharma came to the front and began to push on. At the back, Frank Schleck’s derailleur jammed and he had to stop.
While the pace was undeniably hot, there was little in the way of action. Bram Tankink of Rabobank attacked on the descent of the Kruisberg. Such was his speed, he had the convoy of motorbikes panicking that they would get in the way. With the Eyserbosweg coming up so quickly, Tankink’s move looked dangerous, which is why Fuglsang shut it down.
The definitive moment of the race was sparked by Kolobnev, presumably unconcerned by the controversy swirling around him. The Russian accelerated on the false flat at the top of Eyserbosweg and suddenly the gaps appeared.
Under such pressure, a group of around 18 riders formed. This was it. The move.
Gilbert was there, with two team-mates, Jelle Vanendert and Jurgen Van den Broeck. Rabobank were well represented too, with Oscar Freire, Robert Gesink, Paul Martens and Tankink. Katusha had Joaquim Rodriguez, Kolobnev and Daniel Moreno. Andy Schleck and Fuglsang were there for Leopard, Leukemans and Hoogerland for Vacansoleil. Ben Hermans of Radioshack, Simon Gerrans of Team Sky, Damiano Cunego of Lampre and Alexandre Vinokourov of Astana were the other notable names present.
But this was now shaping up into a battle between three teams – Omega Pharma, Rabobank and Katusha.
Gilbert set Van den Broeck to work and the tall Belgian set a strong enough pace to drag the group clear. Why was Gilbert so keen to make this move work? Firstly, it was a nice, manageable number of riders. Secondly, he had two team-mates and, although Rabobank and Katusha were also well represented, he was in a strong position. And thirdly, because of the number of teams in the lead group there was a chance that if they could open the gap it would stay clear to the Cauberg.
With 13 kilometres to go, they reached the Keutenberg, the penultimate climb. Katusha’s tactics here were classic. Rodriguez had a go on the climb, then Kolobnev did the same thing he’d done earlier, keeping the pressure on as they went across the top, which was quite exposed. Even on a relatively still day, the breeze behind would help exploit the cracks.
Andy Schleck attacked with 11 kilometres to go. It was a fierce acceleration which suggested he really was striking for home alone rather than hoping to take a couple of riders with him. Schleck’s chances of winning a sprint on the Cauberg against the likes of Gilbert and Kolobnev were very slim.
Van den Broeck’s legs had been wrung dry, so Vanendert was the next Omega Pharma rider to hit the front. The gap remained steady, never more than 14 seconds, never less than eight. As they headed towards the outskirts of Valkenburg, Gilbert became frustrated that his man was receiving no assistance. He dropped back down the line to ask Oscar Freire if he would put one of the Rabobank riders to work. Freire declined. Katusha weren’t willing to work either.
Gilbert could not have been confident that Schleck would blow up on the Cauberg. He must’ve feared that if they waited any longer, Schleck would stay away.
Faced with such a dilemma, it’s fair to say many riders would simply settle into the line and wait. So what if I lose? I’m not going to burn my legs to set it up for someone else.
But Gilbert chose not to do that. Van den Broeck and Vanendert were spent. The gap was still a concern. No one else was willing to ride. So, with just under four kilometres to go – 2.8km to the foot of the final climb – Gilbert hit the front.
Madness. Surely, this was madness. The overwhelming favourite, the defending champion, towing a mass of rivals to the finish, where they would surely stream past him? Rabobank’s inactivity was puzzling. Perhaps they did not have confidence in any of their riders. Maybe the Cauberg was too steep for Freire, not steep enough for Gesink? Perhaps they were concerned they’d risk setting it up for their Dutch rivals, Vacansoleil? Rabobank have been criticised in the past – slaughtered by the Dutch press, in fact – for riding hard but stupidly and gifting the race to their rivals. Not this time. Instead they would choose be passive.
But Gilbert’s decision to chase was tantamount to taking off his Omega Pharma jersey and putting on a Rabobank one for the finale, wasn’t it?
Schleck was still away as he went under the banner signalling that there was a kilometre to go. But the gap was now very small and Schleck’s legs were fading.
Rodriguez of Katusha swept past the Leopard leader, then Gilbert summoned the strength to got onto the Spaniard’s wheel before going past him.
While it may not have been an inspiring race until the very end, the manner of Gilbert’s victory was irrepressible and offers hope for an explosive showdown at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. It took a year for the peloton to solve the Fabian Cancellara problem at the cobbled Classics. How long is it going to take them to solve the Philippe Gilbert problem in the Ardennes?