Philippe Gilbert’s victory on the Mur de Huy showed a once-in-a-generation rider at the peak of his powers.
Words by Lionel Birnie
It’s so obvious now. Of course Philippe Gilbert was always going to win Flèche Wallonne. The Belgian is currently the world’s finest puncheur and he is in absolutely sparkling form.
If the Amstel Gold Race was a demonstration of his willingness to risk losing by working to set up his own victory, Flèche Wallonne was a masterclass in meticulous timing. One gets the impression that if he is to complete the grand slam by winning Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he will have to hit upon a combination of both those qualities.
However, to accurately analyse Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne using the written word, it is tempting to start with one incredibly long, boring paragraph that says almost nothing and follow it with an excitable, staccato sentence packed with superlatives and leave it at that.
Because that would pretty much sum up the pattern of a race that is so completely dominated by the steepness of the Mur de Huy that it is becoming formulaic and predictable.
Flèche Wallonne translates as Walloon Arrow. It’s an apt name for the race in its current guise because there’s no point to it until you get to the end. Unfair, perhaps, but only a little.
That is certainly not a criticism of Gilbert, who set his Omega Pharma team to work for long stretches over the final phase of the race, and then finished it off with a devastating turn of speed that opened a great chasm of a gap back to second-placed Joaquim Rodriguez. But it is proof that for all its grandstanding drama, the Mur de Huy finish should be given a rest.
Maybe ASO should consider using the summit finish only every other year. Alternate editions could experiment with the positioning of the Mur’s final ascent, with the finish line down in the town of Huy. It would at least allow for some variety and create the opportunity for some more dynamic racing on the Mur.
With the Cauberg and the uphill finish at Ans bookending the week, there is the suspicion that you can indeed have too much of a good thing.
The Mur de Huy, more than the hills at the end of the two longer classics that surround it, casts such a huge shadow over the race it makes it easy for the television viewer to switch on for the last five minutes and know that they haven’t missed anything important.
Spectacular though the slow-motion sprint up the wall is, the rest of the race barely reached halfway on the excitement dial. That’s not to say it was a slow race, it wasn’t, but it was distinctly lacking in action until very late in the day.
And that is understandable. The riders who want to win know they have to wait until the final 300 metres to make their effort. The Mur is simply too steep to attack from the bottom. And the approach to the climb, with a fast, plummeting descent followed by a long stretch of road that favours the chasers not the attackers, does little to offer any incentive.
Knowing that the third and final climb of the Mur would be the only truly decisive point of the race probably explains why the four-man break that got clear after 16 kilometres was allowed to build such a huge lead.
Preben Van Haecke of Topsport Vlaanderen, the Finnish rider Matti Helminen of Landbouwkrediet, Maciej Paterski, a Pole riding for Liquigas, and Maxime Vantomme, the Belgian with Katusha, gained 17 minutes over the peloton at one point.
Katusha were looking after their interests by getting into the break. Under a summer-like sun, the advantage melted away. It was down to 10 minutes at the Côte de Haut-Bois, with 82 kilometres remaining. Down again to seven minutes by the Côte de Groynne 20 kilometres later and close to five once the Côte de Bohisseau and Côte de Bousalle had been crossed.
The fast, flat road that runs alongside the river Meuse signalled a significant burst of pace as they neared the Côte d’Ahin with 40 kilometres to go. At the back of the bunch, Damiano Cunego of Lampre crashed. Several of his Lampre team-mates dropped back to pull him back to the bunch but it effectively ruined his chances of winning.
There was an attack on the Côte d’Ahin by AG2R’s Biel Kadri. Andriy Grivko of Astana tried to go with him. Up ahead the quartet was now a trio, as Helminen lost touch.
After the second climb of the Mur, a very dangerous-looking break formed. Enrico Gasparotto of Astana started it, and was followed by HTC’s Tejay Van Garderen. Then Sky’s Swedish rider Thomas Löfkvist went across with Alexandr Kolobnev of Katusha. Finally Gorka Verdugo of Euskaltel and Vasili Kiriyenka of Movistar bridged up to them. There was not a slouch among them.
The Polish rider Michael Golas of Vacansoleil then rode across the gap in impressive style and shortly afterwards, they picked up the three leaders.
The gap was never more than 30 seconds or so, an advantage that can disappear in a dozen pedal strokes on the Mur, so although it was a handy-looking move, with Omega Pharma driving an incredible pace on the front of the bunch, it was never going to last.
Lôfkvist clearly felt the same way so with 17 kilometres left, he accelerated, taking Kiriyenka with him. The way they hit the penultimate climb, the Côte d’Ereffe, did nothing to suggest they’d be able to make it to the foot of the Mur, let alone the line. Behind them, Dries Devenyns tried to get across the gap but he did nothing but tread water and was gathered up by the Omega Pharma-led bunch.
Finally, Jérôme Pineau of Quick Step and Marco Marcato of Vacansoleil tried something, flying down the descent of the Côte d’Ereffe, hoping to open a gap that might give them a chance.
They managed to reach the bottom of the climb still out in front. Rabobank had joined Katusha and Leopard in the chase effort, hoping to get Robert Gesink into a perfect position for the climb. Pineau and Marcato made it to about 600 metres to go.
Gilbert’s positioning was perfect. He was in third place as Garmin’s Christophe Le Mevel hit the front and he remained poised to make that extraordinary jump for the line.
Unlike in recent years, where the lead on the Mur has changed hands like some demented game of pass the parcel, Gilbert was in control from a long way out.
For all Cancellara’s strengths, Gilbert is the best one-day rider in the world. He has won Omloop Het Volk, Paris-Tours, the Tour of Lombardy and Amstel Gold (all twice), as well as Montepaschi Eroica, Brabantse Pilj and now Flèche Wallonne. That is an array of some of the biggest races in the world, demanding a level of versatility few riders possess.
But Liège-Bastogne-Liège is one he really wants. He hails from Remouchamps, the village close to La Redoute. It is his territory and, he feels, his destiny. The way the week is unfolding, the question is, who can stop him?