Never has anybody in cycling made anything so difficult look so easy. Philippe Gilbert’s victory in La Doyenne netted the Belgian an Ardennes triple crown.
Words by Lionel Birnie
All the talk was about Philippe Gilbert completing the treble but, in fact, victory in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège sealed a historic and astonishing quadruple.
Brabantse Pijl, or to give it the French name Flèche Brabançonne, kicked off a purple patch on April 13, the like of which has rarely been seen in cycling. Gilbert’s run concluded, 14 days later, with a superbly cool, calm and collected victory in the race he has always craved. Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne were fine additions to a burgeoning collection of Classic wins but for Gilbert, Liège is not simply La Doyenne, it is his race.
The 28-year-old may live in Monaco but Remouchamps, the village that sits beneath La Redoute, is the place he calls home. Every year his supporters mass on the climb and the name ‘Phil’ is painted with such frequency on the road, barely anyone else gets a look-in. That might serve as an adequate metaphor for the way the race panned out.
Gilbert has been irrepressible of late. As the overwhelming favourite, he could have been tempted to opt for caution, fearing that he would be marked out of every move. But there was no such restraint. The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider took responsibility by reacting smartly on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons when Frank and Andy Schleck sparked what proved to be the winning move.
Of course Gilbert was going to win if they took him to within sight of the line. While it is easy to be critical without the benefit of knowing precisely how shattered they were feeling, it was astonishing that the Leopard brothers did not put in a single attack between the top of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and the finish.
If that situation – two team-mates and brothers without a sprint between them, up against the man of the moment with a superior kick – did not call for the use of the old-fashioned one-two, then what does?
That is not to call into question their immense talent, or their contribution to the race, but when push came to shove, the Schlecks failed to contrive a single tactical move between them. You have to wonder what the instructions from the Leopard team car were but in the final analysis you are left with the conclusion that even if the Schlecks shared one tactical brain between them they’d be dangerous.
While it is difficult to imagine them conjuring anything that could have led to a different outcome, it was disappointing to watch the Schlecks sleepwalk towards their fate. If one of the brothers had attacked in the final two or three kilometres, Gilbert would have been forced to react. And once Gilbert had closed the gap, the other could have gone. There should have been no hesitation, no time to allow the fire in the Belgian’s legs to cool, just bam-bam, like a boxer landing a sweet left-right combination.
Okay, so it may not have worked but it would have been nice to see the Schlecks try something. Anything. Gilbert’s strength was such that he probably could have responded to two, three, maybe four concerted accelerations from his opponents and still had enough to win the sprint. The Schlecks were tired, no doubt, but to fail to plant even the tiniest seed of doubt in Gilbert’s mind when it was two against one was meek. This was Liège-Bastogne-Liège up for grabs, after all.
The result, and Gilbert’s quadruple, will take all the headlines, and rightly so, but it was a curious race. There really was just one outstanding moment and that was the acceleration by the Schlecks on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, with 22 kilometres to go. Andy and Frank surged clear and Gilbert picked his way through to get on the wheel. They must have groaned when they realised that only Gilbert had managed to go with them. Ideally, the Schlecks needed three or four more of the serious danger men to join them. People like Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas, or Joaquim Rodriguez or Alexandr Kolobnev of Katusha.
Just three kilometres had passed when the first attackers made their move. Sébastien Delfosse of Landbouwkrediet and Jesus Herrada Lopez of Movistar broke clear and soon after David Lelay of Ag2r La Mondiale bridged across. They were later joined by Simon Geschke of Skil-Shimano, Frederik Kessiakof of Astana, Eduard Vorganov of Katusha, Tony Gallopin of Cofidis, Mickael Delage of FDJ, Thomas De Gendt of Vacansoleil and Yannick Talabardon of Saur.
Their advantage quickly reached 3-15 but didn’t get much further. Behind, Omega Pharma, Rabobank and Leopard-Trek shared the work pretty evenly.
The major hills come after the turn and, as could have been expected, the attacks began to increase in severity. On the Côte de Haute-Levée, with 85 kilometres to go, Laurens Ten Dam of Rabobank reacted to a move by Astana’s Roman Kreuziger and succeeded in pulling a group clear.
In it were Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Enrico Gasparotto (Astana), Juan Manuel Garate (also Rabobank), Biel Kadri (AG2R), Dario Cataldo and Jérôme Pineau (both Quick Step), Damiano Caruso (Liquigas) and Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad). They took around 10 kilometres to catch scoop up some of the riders dropped from the lead group and eventually to link up with them.
Although it was a powerful-looking group, the fact that so many of the original leaders were able to stay in it, and a well-organised chase, meant that the one-minute lead they had going over the Col du Maquisard with 60 kilometres remaining was nothing to worry about.
Twenty kilometres further on, though, and there was more cause for concern. The lead had edged out to 1-42 with the emblematic climb of the Côte de la Redoute almost upon them.
With Gasparotto, Pineau and Kadri putting the pressure on, the lead group began to splinter. Behind, Leopard-Trek’s Jakob Fuglsang and Frank Schleck were on the front of the bunch but theirs was a job of containment at this stage rather than an all-out pursuit.
The weaker riders were unable to get back up to the leaders, leaving Gasparotto, Pineau, Kadri, Van Avermaet, Garate, Ten Dam and Sivtsov up front.
Leopard continued to chase but tried to rope in some help from Omega Pharma, who were unwilling to join in.
The moment of the race came on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, a relatively new climb to the route, added to the course in 2008 but already established as a key battleground. From the top, there are just under 20 kilometres to go to the finish.
Gasparotto, the former Italian champion, who has transformed himself from a handy sprinter into a major strand of Astana’s attack in these races, showed just how easy it is to get caught out by the relentless tightening of the bolt in a race like Liège-Bastogne-Liège. One minute he was dropping all bar Van Avermaet on the climb, the next he was being passed by the two Schlecks and Gilbert, who had made a ferocious move that perhaps didn’t make observers sit up and take notice until a few kilometres later.
Further down the climb, the defending champion Alexandre Vinokourov punctured. It was the worst possible timing and although his team-mate Maxim Iglinskiy quickly gave him a wheel, the Kazakh’s race was all but over.
Van Avermaet managed to hang onto the Schleck express and Gasparotto and Pineau latched on over the top of the climb but they were dropped as soon as the Schlecks and Gilbert applied the pressure. Only Van Avermaet was able to stay with them.
Igor Anton of Euskaltel and Kolobnev tried to bridge across but they were recaptured by the rest of the chasers, who were reluctant to then push on.
Gilbert and the Schlecks shared the work, with Van Avermaet sitting on. Although an opponent to be wary of in the sprint, he was unlikely to survive to the finish, and so it proved. The quartet’s lead went out to 43 seconds as they reached the final climb, the brutally steep Côte de Saint-Nicolas.
And it was here that you could have expected the Schlecks to soften up Gilbert. Instead, it was the Belgian who opened hostilities. He attacked towards the top. Frank Schleck stuck with him, but Andy’s head was hanging, his eyes fixed on the patch of road just ahead of him, barely daring to look to see the damage Gilbert had done. Van Avermaet had already disappeared.
Somehow Andy Schleck found the strength to close the gap and, for a moment, you wondered if Gilbert might have rued the decision not to power on and make sure there was no way back for the younger of the two brothers.
However, the odds were still in Gilbert’s favour. Like a great escapologist, he was straitjacketed by the Schlecks and his wrists appeared padlocked behind his back, but you knew deep down that he would manage to wriggle free somehow.
Behind them a handy group had got clear, containing Kreuziger, Rigoberto Uran of Sky, Chris Sorensen of Saxo Bank, Vicenzo Nibali of Liquigas, Bjorn Leukemans of Vacansoleil. They had caught Van Avermaet but there was little chance they’d make any further progress.
The final two kilometres were bizarre. Proof, perhaps that many of the riders who specialise in the grand tours have become so risk-averse they have numbed their aggressive instincts into extinction.
They were going to finish second and third anyway, so why not try something maverick to alter the course of the finale? Only the Schlecks can answer that and in this PR-savvy age, they will no doubt point to Gilbert’s strength as proof that they had no chance.
Gilbert’s strength was undeniable. It was awe-inspiring to see him win four successive races in such different circumstances. At Brabantse Pijl he got away with Bjorn Leukemans, finishing more than a minute ahead of the rest. There was a moment’s conversation between the two, perhaps the suggestion from Leukemans that a favour here might be returned in the more important races to come, who knows, but Gilbert produced a powerful sprint anyway. At Amstel Gold he risked defeat by chasing Andy Schleck towards the end and pretty much led himself out for his own sprint. On the Mur at Flèche Wallonne, he proved that he was the strongest. And at Liège he combined that strength with a tactical smartness that suggested Eddy Merckx was not talking hyperbolics last week when comparing Gilbert to himself.
For the Schlecks? Well, is it too much to suggest that the video of the final 10 kilometres is played over and over in the team bus between now and the Tour de France?