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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Philippe Gilbert played it smart at Amstel Gold Race

A detailed analysis of the Amstel Gold Race:

The podium
The podium

Philippe Gilbert is one of the smartest, strongest and nicest guys in today’s peloton. And those qualities were neatly reflected in the way he took the victory in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. He brilliantly exploited all the resources of his admittedly weak team. And he then stamped his authority on the race by making or following repeated accelerations before his winning uphill punch to the summit finish on the Cauberg.

Gilbert has often said that the Dutch classic deserves to be one of the sport’s monuments —“It’s just like the Tour of Flanders without the cobblestones,” he said last week, after finishing third in Flanders. Like the Belgian classic, the Amstel has a circuitous course that twists and turns around hilly, narrow back roads, one in the bergs of the Flemish Ardennes, the other in Limburg, the Dutch province that juts into the hillier parts of western Belgium and eastern Germany.

So how did Gilbert use his smarts in the Amstel Gold Race? First off, he made sure he had a teammate (Staf Scheirlinckx) in the early seven-man breakaway, which allowed the rest of the Omega-Lotto team to sit back in the peloton. “We’re a strong team,” Gilbert said in the build-up to this weekend, “but not strong enough to bear the weight for 250km.”

Omega-Lotto’s smart decision put the pressure on the other race favorites, with home squad Rabobank, led by last year’s third-place finisher Robert Gesink and Milan-San Remo winner Oscar Freire, setting the peloton’s tempo for the first half of the race. The bulk of the work was done by Rabobank’s Lars Boom, the former world cyclocross champ, who flamed out on the second of the three passes of the Cauberg climb, at the start of the vital final loop of the 257.3km Amstel course.

This left Rabo’s other support riders to help those teams that also missed the break, principally Saxo Bank (for the Schleck brothers) and Lampre-Farnese (for 2008 winner Damiano Cunego). “There was no other choice but to make the race harder with 130km still to go,” said Saxo’s co-leader, Fränk Schleck, the 2006 Amstel winner.

Meanwhile, in the break, Scheirlinckx soft-pedaled for much of the day until the gap came down to a minute (from a 6:30 maximum) with 40km and seven climbs still to come. Then, Pharma’s 31-year-old Belgian domestique went to the front of the lead group and did everything he could to delay the eventual catch — which came 10km later. Scheirlinckx’s efforts meant that Gilbert had a little extra time to compose his thoughts and muscles before what are the key climbs of the Amstel: the Kruisberg, Eyserbosweg, Fromberg and Keutenberg, which all come within the space of 11km on the narrowest roads.

If you are badly place turning left across the narrow brick bridge at the foot of the Kruisberg, which average 7.5 percent for 800 meters, you have little chance of figuring in the finale. That was clear when race favorites Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Chris Horner (Team RadioShack) and Gilbert were all present in the front line as the leaders pushed the pace.

Gilbert said he was in perfect position because of this strongest teammates. “I kept (Javier) Moreno and (Jurgen0) Van den Broeck with me,” he said at the post-race press conference. “I knew I could count on them to help.”

Being close to the front of the peloton, which spit into several sections over the Kruisberg, meant that Gilbert was in the ideal position to monitor the attacks that were about to come. The first came from the promising Italian rider Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil), who went off on his own before the Eyserbosweg (1.1km at 8.1 percent), where Andy Schleck blasted clear of the chasers, with Gilbert, Cunego and two others joining him over the windswept summit.

Ten men quickly formed the lead group, with Garmin-Transitions team leader Ryder Hesjedal having to work hard at the head of the chase group to close a 10-second gap. When the groups came together entering the Fromberg, Fränk Schleck accelerated, taking with him Cunego, Gilbert, brother Andy and three others.

Over the top, Cunego stepped on the gas, and this time just Gilbert, Fränk Schleck and defending champion Serguei Ivanov (Katusha) were in position to follow. With 14km still to go, it looked like a potentially winning move; but Evans (now working as a domestique for teammate Karsten Kroon, the 2009 runner-up) put in a long surge to pull up a dozen-strong chase group.

Ivanov's attack
Ivanov's attack

That was the moment, before a fast, twisting descent, chosen by Ivanov to charge away from the front. But it wouldn’t be this easy for him to win again. From the re-grouped chasers, Gilbert sent Van den Broeck after Ivanov, while Evans sped after them for BMC.

When these three hit the foot of the Keutenberg, Ivanov immediately dropped the other two (Evans said he was cramping), and Gilbert emerged on the 700-meter, 9.4-percent wall, splitting the group. Only Cunego, Fränk Schleck and Ivanov’s teammate and fellow Russian Alexandr Kolobnev could go with them, while Hesjedal was looking strong at the front of a group 10 seconds back.

It’s at this point in the race, across a flat plateau across farmland with 10km to go, that the Amstel is often decided. So when Ivanov was reeled in, Gilbert dashed clear alone, confident of his strength. But he wasn’t burning all of his energy.

“After my attack, when I saw the chase group with Cunego and Ivanov, I decided to wait,” he said. “It was a difficult decision but I think it was a good one. That way I was able to conserve enough strength for the finale.”

It was right here four years ago that Fränk Schleck made his winning solo move through a cloying mist. This time, on a clear sunny afternoon, the Luxembourger was more circumspect. “It wasn’t an ideal situation,” he said. “Gilbert and Cunego were there, and we had to be careful of the Ivanov-Kolobnev pairing.”

Cunego was feeling the same way. His Lampre team director, Brent Copeland, said about Cunego, “His only regret concerned the breakaway he was in during the last 10km. If there hadn’t been two riders from the same team, who logically took turns to attack, that group would have stayed away.”

Indeed, with 8km still to race, Kolobnev counter-attacked from the front group and hurtled away. He was out of sight when the course entered the little streets of Sibbe, where, with 5km remaining, he was nine seconds ahead of the Gilbert quartet, and 19 seconds clear of the 25-strong Hesjedal pack, where Gesink was making a huge effort to close the gap for teammate Freire.

His efforts helped the groups merge on the sweeping descent into Valkenburg, where Kolobnev was clearly in their sights. It had, once more, come down to the final assault up the Cauberg, which is steep in the first half before leveling out with 200 meters to go.

Kolobnev attack
Kolobnev attack

A year ago, Gilbert didn’t have any teammates left to close a 60-meter gap on the three-man break, and he finished in fourth. This time, Van den Broeck made the effort to close down Kolobnev, before Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo (the 2009 Clásica San Sebastián winner) launched the sprint. Gilbert followed him with Cunego right behind.

Then, another unlikely aggressor, Landbouwkrediet’s Bert de Waele, blasted past them on their left. This was just what Gilbert was waiting for as he took the veteran Belgian’s wheel and then launched an unstoppable acceleration. We saw him make just such a move on the San Fermo della Battaglia hill in his victorious Tour of Lombardy last October; and this time with the line only 400 meters away, no one was going to catch him.

Hesjedal came from way back, pushing a bigger gear that he was able to accelerate on in the flatter finish straight, to take a highly merited second place away from Astana’s Enrico Gasparotto, while De Waele hung tough for fourth.

But this day was all about the man who used impeccable tactics after planning and peaking for a race he had targeted for a whole year: Philippe Gilbert. The 27-year-old Belgian is now the owner of four major classics … and counting.

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