It seems churlish, after witnessing such an imperious ride, to draw attention away from the star of the show, Philippe Gilbert.

But the big question posed by Saturday’s Het Volk was: Where on earth were Quick Step?

All that strength and not a single rider made the decisive move. It was the elephant in the room all afternoon. A big, lumbering elephant dropped on all the climbs after initially looking so imposing. Where were they? In fact, their best-placed rider was Wouter Weylandt in 16th place, 4-37 down.

Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini could be excused because they only returned from the Tour of California on Monday. Had it not been Het Volk, an important race for the Belgian team’s sponsor, they would have been given the weekend off, and more time to recover from the effects of jet-lag.

But Boonen being Boonen, and Het Volk being a rare example of a Belgian Classic he’s yet to win, Quick Step knew they had no choice but to press him into action. They tried to play down his chances, explaining that jet-lag, a tough race in cold, very un-Californian conditions and a lack of time to recover would probably mean he wouldn’t be a factor in the race.

It would have taken a deft bit of public relations work to have persuaded the Belgian public that resting Boonen from a race founded by a newspaper named ‘The People’ was a good idea.

Next in line was Stijn Devolder. The Belgian champion won the Tour of the Algarve a week ago but crashed on the last road stage and was said to be suffering from the bruises. He looked promising when he tested his legs on the Taaienberg, but then he melted away and finished in the same group as Boonen, 6-35 down.

Stijn Devolder

Gert Steegmans had less of an excuse. He’s the powerhouse who won in the same finishing straight in the centre of Ghent when the Tour de France visited, but he blew up when the race reached the Eikenberg and, suddenly, looked a very big man. He didn’t make it to the finish – so much for tipping him as the pre-race favourite.

There wasn’t a single blue and white jersey to be seen at the head of the race in the final 50 kilometres, something that will no doubt lead to a detailed post-mortem over dinner and a determination to do better in Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

GILBERT’S GREAT

Philippe Gilbert and Francaise des Jeux won’t be crying into their celebratory glass of Leffe about Quick Step’s travails, though. Gilbert soared above the rest with a superbly executed battle plan that started by making sure a team-mate went with the early break.

Arnaud Gerard took that role, and he followed the plan to the letter. The work he did for Gilbert as he attempted to ride his way to the front of the race was invaluable. Without it, Gilbert’s job would have been a lot harder.

WIN HET VOLK THE GILBERT WAY
Step 1: Put a team-mate in the day-long break
Step 2: Attack hard, as if your life depends on it, on the Eikenberg, with 50km to go
Step 3: Use your team-mate to tow you up to the front while you take a breather
Step 4: Hit them hard with an attack on the cobbles
Step 5: Time trial to the finish. Don’t look back

Six men did the decent thing and attacked early. Yuriy Krivtsov of Ag2r, David Boucher of Landbouwkrediet, Michael Freedman of Slipstream and Aleksandr Kuschynski of Liquigas were four of them. We didn’t know it at the time, but Arnaud Gerard was Francaise des Jeux’s under-cover agent. Sebastien Minard was there for Cofidis. Perhaps he was performing the same function for Nick Nuyens?

The break lacked a rider from Quick Step, but that was not a concern. They were mob-handed in the bunch and seemed to have things under control when they fanned out across the road to control the pace.

But when the pressure went on, they went backwards.

Gilbert’s chosen moment came on the Eikenberg, an eye-watering 50 kilometres from the finish. And, with only two more climbs to follow it, he knew his attack had to be a big one. There was no point dipping a toe in the water, he had to dive in head first and hope his breath held long enough.

Astonishingly it did. He powered through the refugees from the six-man early break and then, when he latched onto his decoy man – Gerard – he took the opportunity to rest.

It eventually regrouped after what seemed a long chase. Smooth though the Belgian looked, it was not a simple chase and his advantage over the big names behind was not enough to ensure a trouble-free ride to the finish.

But once he was in the front group, there he was, Gilbert the axeman among a forest of fading legs.

Gilbert in full flight on the run-in to Ghent. By Luc Claessen

As they reached the Lange Munte, a tough section of cobbles, he made his move. Again it was hard and decisive. He wasn’t messing about and perhaps it was the finality of his attack that persuaded the weary that it wasn’t worth chasing.

Any hope of denying Gilbert his second Het Volk win in three years rested with the legs and the desire of a stellar chase group that included Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto) and the survivors from the earlier breakaway.

Gilbert, though, put his head down and gave it everything he had. The gap held at a minute until the very last kilometres and by the time he reached the bottom of the drag up to the finish line, he knew it was in the bag.

Nuyens slipped away to take second, Hushovd won a two-man sprint for third against Yuriy Krivtsov of Ag2r, a contender for runner-up in the man of the day competition as he’d been away in that first six-man group.

If Gilbert’s first Het Volk win in 2006 served notice of his talent, this one shows he’s moved into the category of contender for the big classics. Belgian TV’s coverage closed with a musical montage summing up Gilbert’s day. The backing track was U2′s Even Better Than The Real Thing. You can’t argue with that. Gilbert will be a man to watch in April, for sure.

As will Hoste and Cancellara, as we already knew, and perhaps Nuyens too.

Tom Boonen? Well, it would be unfair to judge him on today’s ride. But Quick Step need to offer some sort of reassurance quickly.

Tom Boonen

Thor Hushovd

HET VOLK WINNERS…

Philippe Gilbert – No question. He made mincemeat of the rest. It was the bravery of his ride that spoke loudest. It could easily have fallen short and been a waste of time
Marc Madiot – FDJ boss deserves credit for the tactical plan. Putting a man up the road usually just takes the pressure off. Here it played a major role in Gilbert’s victory
French teams – Seven riders in the first 11 – although only three of them were actually French
Thor Hushovd – Puts himself in the frame for Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders. He’s never been so good, so early
Fabian Cancellara – Why is it whenever he appears on screen the Jaws theme music comes to mind? He’s going to be a big, big danger in the Classics
Yuriy Krivtsov – Of the six early breakaways, he survived longest and narrowly missed the podium
Michael Friedman – Slipstream’s vow to make a splash in every race they do continues. Acquitted himself very well in the break and didn’t sit up when it regrouped
The redesigned route – In recent years the climbs have come at least 60 kilometres from the finish, which would have discouraged an audacious bid like Gilbert’s utterly. Instead, the end was just about in sight from the little batch of climbs that ended the middle phase of the race.
The early breakaway – Usually you’d expect them to be swept up before finishing well down. Well, five of the original six finished in the first 12

…AND LOSERS

Quick Step – Wouter Weylandt 16th at 4-37, Wilfried Cretskens 40th at 6-32, Stijn Devolder, Steve De Jongh and Tom Boonen 69th, 73rd and 85th at 6-35. Why is it the buzzer noise from Family Fortunes comes to mind? Not a good day at the office
High Road – Roger Hammond was 45th, the only High Road rider in the top 100
Robbie McEwen – Rode for about 25 minutes. What was that all about? Said he was ill, so why did he start?

Philippe Gilbert

THE TOP TEN

1. Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) Francaise des Jeux 199km in 4-55-25
2. Nick Nuyens (Belgium) Cofidis at 58 seconds
3. Thor Hushovd (Norway) Credit Agricole at 1-06
4. Yuriy Krivtsov (Ukraine) Ag2r same time
5. Aleksandr Kuschynski (Belarus) Liquigas at 1-12
6. Nicolas Jalabert (France) Agritubel at 1-13
7. Leif Hoste (Belgium) Silence-Lotto same time
8. Allan Johansen (Denmark) CSC at 1-16
9. Jan Kuyckx (Belgium) Landbouwkrediet at 1-53
10. Arnaud Gerard (France) Francaise des Jeux same time

45. Roger Hammond (Great Britain) Team High Road at 6-32
DNF. Jeremy Hunt (Great Britain) Credit Agricole

More reaction from Het Volk tomorrow

RELATED LINKS
Photo gallery: Het Volk 2008
Het Volk: How it unfolded Cycling Weekly‘s blow-by-blow report and analysis of the race. Want to know what happened, when and why? Read on…
Hammond checks out Het Volk course
Will jet-lag take its toll on Boonen?