UPDATED: Gilbert does it again, this time in Québec

QUEBEC CITY, Canada (VN) — After 200km of hard circuit racing, the top rider from the 2010 Québec City and Montréal Grand Prix Cyclistes and this year’s most prolific one-day race winner squared off on a uphill drag to the finish line here Friday afternoon, with Belgian national champion Philippe Gilbert just holding off Robert […]

QUEBEC CITY, Canada (VN) — After 200km of hard circuit racing, the top rider from the 2010 Québec City and Montréal Grand Prix Cyclistes and this year’s most prolific one-day race winner squared off on a uphill drag to the finish line here Friday afternoon, with Belgian national champion Philippe Gilbert just holding off Robert Gesink to take the win.

The scenario for the race’s finale — the two biggest pre-race favorites, a climber and a strongman, battling for victory on a 4 percent climb that suited them both — was a dramatic finish to an exciting day of racing for this second-year event.

In 2010 Gesink (Rabobank) finished third in Québec, behind Thomas Voeckler, and then won Montréal.

Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) did not race the Canadian WorldTour events last year, but coming into this year’s events, the most dominant rider of the 2011 season was the overwhelming favorite, even after he claimed his form was not what it has been earlier this year.

And just as it’s happened so many times in 2011, when Gilbert laid down his late-race attack, though it came as a surprise to no one, no other rider could match the pace. This time the attack came on the Côte de la Potasse, a 420-meter climb that averages 9 percent.

“The race was really hard, and in the last lap everyone was tired,” Gilbert said. “No one wanted to attack, and the wind was blowing strong, especially at the finish line. It was difficult to control the race. I didn’t have any teammates. I was alone, and I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it.”

Gesink tried, and came close, losing by three seconds, but the Rabobank rider was left conceding that he’d been beaten by the stronger man.

“Gilbert is the man of the season,” Gesink said. “It’s not a shame to lose to him, but it’s hard when you are that close. I felt good, but it was just not quite enough.”

Winding it up

In contrast to the inaugural Québec event, which was held in chilly conditions, sunny skies and warm temperatures greeted the peloton on Friday — and brought out spectators en masse.

Run on a demanding 12.6km circuit through Old Québec City, the GP Cycliste de Québec delivers several tough hills, including the Côte de la Montagne, a 375-meter pitch located 9km into the circuit that maxes out at 13 percent. There’s also the aforementioned Côte de la Potasse, which falls 10km into the circuit, and the final 1km climb up Grande Allée Street, averaging 4 percent.

Once through the start/finish area, the race traveled through the green fields of the Parc des Champs-de-Bataille before a screaming fast descent down Gilmour Hill took the route along the Saint-Laurent River and back toward the old city, where a serpentine course brought the peloton first to the steep Montagne and then the Potasse before winding back towards the Grande Allée. The course delivered 16 laps, with lap times averaging around 19 minutes.

“It’s going to be hard,” said HTC-Highroad’s Tejay van Garderen before the race. “It will have that criterium sort of feel, where it never really lets up.”

Light winds buffeted the peloton, with a headwind through the park and along the start/finish, and a tailwind along the river, the course’s closest thing to a recovery section.

The day’s primary breakaway consisted of three riders — Spaniard Jesus Herrada (Movistar), Frenchman Tony Hurel (Europcar), and Italian Cristiano Salerno (Liquigas-Cannondale). After escaping on the second of 16 laps, the trio quickly opened a gap that maxed out at over six minutes on the fourth lap. But by lap 6, with Sky and Garmin driving the chase, the gap had come down to 3:40, where it would hover for several subsequent laps.

While Sky’s Michael Barry, Juan Antonio Flecha and Jeremy Hunt were parked at the front, the teams of other favorites, such as Gilbert’s Omega Pharma-Lotto squad and Gesink’s Rabobank team, had things easier.

“We worked hard, but we didn’t throw around our strength,” said Rabobank’s Stef Clement.

At the beginning of the tenth lap, the gap to the break was just over three minutes.

On lap 11 Rabobank attacked en masse over the Côte de la Montagne, but not to the desired effect; a frustrated Gesink was waving his arms in anger over the top of the climb when none of his teammates could stay with him. However the team’s aggression halved the gap to 1:45.

A small, short-lived group formed coming through start/finish to complete lap 11. In the move were Timmy Duggan (Liquigas), Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Luis Pasamontes (Movistar), Matteo Trentin (Quick Step), Peter Stetina (Garmin) and Stefan Denifl (Leopard-Trek). The gap was down to 1:15 with five laps (63km) remaining.

Another chase group formed, with Rui Costa (Movistar), Gorazd Stangelj (Astana) and Mirko Selvaggi (Vacansoleil). Though it would also be reeled in, the tension in the peloton created by the escape brought the gap to the leading three down again, to 35 seconds.

On the 12th time over the Montagne, Hurel was dropped from the lead group, and Herrada went clear. Riding for Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Cervélo massed at the front of the pack over the steep climb, setting a blistering pace that shed riders such as Flecha and Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing). Salerno was caught at the bottom of the Grande Allée climb, and Herrada was caught a kilometer later, near the finish line. The peloton was strung out entering Parc des Champs-de-Bataille, with Tom Danielson on the front, and Gilbert sitting directly behind Hesjedal.

Sky returned to the front the 13th time over the Côte de la Montagne, but it was Vande Velde attacking over the top, drawing out Trentin (Quick Step), Pasamontes (Movistar), Philip Deignan (RadioShack) and Maciej Paterski (Liquigas).

Behind, cameras focused on riders such as Ben King (RadioShack) and Sébastian Hinault (AG2R La Mondiale) pedaling squares up the steep hill.

A second chase group formed over La Potasse, including Lars Nordhaug (Sky), Tom Stamsnijder (Leopard-Trek), Jan Ghyselinck (HTC-Highroad) and Costa (Movistar).

As that escape reached the Vande Velde group to form a group of nine, Garmin controlled the race from behind, crossing the finish line 15 seconds later. Thirteen laps were done, with three to go.

Bringing it home

With 31km remaining, Rabobank and Omega Pharma reeled in the nine-man Vande Velde. Again Garmin went to the front, with Hesjedal attacking on the 14th trip over the Montagne. Trentin, who had been in moves twice already, countered, opening a gap of 30 seconds with 26km to go; he would later be named the day’s most combative rider. While Costa bridged across to Trentin, Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Samuel Sanchez was dropped from the 80-rider peloton, punching at cramps in his quadriceps muscles.

Canadian national champion Svein Tuft (SpiderTech-C10) launched a move in the park, bridging across to Trentin and Costa, with Deignan, Pasamontes, Stangelj and Hayden Roulston (HTC) in tow. With 21km to go the seven-man Tuft/Trentin move held a 10-second lead, but was also reeled in by the dwindling peloton.

On the penultimate trip over the Montagne, Vacansoleil riders Marco Marcato and Bjorn Leukemans launched a ferocious attack that forced the race-winning selection — and saw Boasson Hagen dropped from the bunch.

In the leading group were Gilbert, Gesink, Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), Rigoberto Uran (Sky), Gerald Ciolek (Quick Step), Simon Clarke (Astana), Fabian Wegmann (Leopard-Trek) and Simone Ponzi (Liquigas).

From that group Gilbert attacked, opening a tenuous 10-second lead across the finish line with one lap to go. But he eased up in the park, dropping to the back of the lead group. His intentions had become clear — his attack was not an attempt to win, but rather to thin out the front of the race. It had worked, and Hesjedal had been the primary victim.

“I wanted to make the race harder,” Gilbert said. “I thought I was going to attack with just a few riders, and one of us could have won, and everyone would have cooperated a lot more. I knew I was exposing myself to a counterattack on the last hill, so once they brought me back, I tried to recover.”

Behind, Danielson and Vande Velde rode at the front, desperately trying to bring the move back for Hesjedal, who had been unable to follow the Vacansoleil move on the Montagne.

“At first I wasn’t that worried about it, I had guys there, and the way things were being ridden, I thought we would bring it back,” Hesjedal said.

On the last trip over the Montagne it was Gesink who was first to attack, opening a gap that only Gilbert and Ciolek could initially close. But as the course leveled out the remainder of the 10-man group came back together until the Côte de la Potasse, which had served as the day’s King of the Mountains summit. Gilbert opened a small gap on the Potasse that grew larger through the winding streets that led to the uphill finishing straight.

“I felt close at 1.5km to go, then we went through a right/left section and I lost 5 meters,” Gesink said.

The final kilometer played out like the final round of a heavyweight fight, as each man surged and faltered, digging deep time and again to take the victory. Both men looked over their shoulders, Gilbert to assure himself the win, and, Gesink to assure himself second place, ahead of Uran.

“It was close, but in the end, I was also looking behind me,” Gesink said. “When I crossed the finish line, I wasn’t very happy, but now I am happy with the result. I think I am in even better shape this year than last year. Last year, I was just trying to follow the guys. I will try to win again in Montréal.”

Wegmann took fourth, with Leipheimer in fifth and Leukemans sixth.

“It was a tough race,” said Wegmann. “It was like an elimination race with every lap faster than the last. I know the race from last year, and I knew I needed to wait to make my move. On the second to last lap, a Vacansoleil rider attacked. I followed his wheel. Gilbert was there, and a lot of other strong riders made the move. We worked well together until the second to last climb. When the pace slowed slightly, Gilbert attacked again and again. He was simply faster and stronger than the rest of us. He powered away from the break. I tried to follow, but it wasn’t possible. In the end, we each crossed the line alone.”

Ciolek finished ninth, 30 seconds back. “I wasn’t really ever confident of the victory,” he said. “With the uphill finish it was a course made for guys like Gilbert and Gesink. I just wanted to keep the group going to stay away to the finish. Riders like Gilbert and Gesink can do four or five efforts on that sort of climb; I can really only do it once.”

Hesjedal crossed the line in 27th, 1:39 behind the winner. “I couldn’t do anything when the move went,” he said. “I didn’t feel bad today, but I didn’t feel great. The team was amazing, and they took the initiative. I’m proud of how we rode, but I’m upset I didn’t have the legs.”

Sky’s Michael Barry crossed the line 14th, 1:23 down, and was awarded as the top Canadian rider.

“We started the race today with three leaders — Rigoberto, Simon Gerrans, and Edvald Boasson Hagen,” Barry said. “The course suited all three of them very well, and we started the race knowing it would be our responsibility to control the race. We started riding on the front right away, after a couple of laps. In the final, Edvald Boasson Hagen did not have the legs to be up there. The final was harder than last year. It was more selective. We can be happy with third place today; the team rode very well. It was not my goal to be the top Canadian; I just wanted to do the best race I could possibly do. Still, it was special to race in front of a Canadian crowd.”

With the win, Gilbert secured 80 UCI WorldTour points, running away with the points classification ahead of BMC’s Cadel Evans, who will not race again this season.

“For the first time this season I was a little stressed at the start, because I had only six points to take for the WorldTour ranking — but they were six hard points,” Gilbert said. “In Montréal, I’ll be under far less pressure. It’s already mission accomplished for me. I achieved both my goals, and everything that comes next is a bonus.”

Complete results

Quick results:

  • 1. Philippe Gilbert, Omega Pharma-Lotto (olo), in 5:03:06
  • 2. Robert Gesink, Rabobank Cycling Team (rab), at 1
  • 3. Rigoberto Uran, Sky Procycling (sky), at 9
  • 4. Fabian Wegmann, Leopard Trek (leo), at 9
  • 5. Levi Leipheimer, Team RadioShack (rsh), at 9
  • 6. Björn Leukemans, Vacansoleil-Dcm Pro Cycling Team (vcd), at 9
  • 7. Simone Ponzi, Liquigas-Cannondale (liq), at 9
  • 8. Marco Marcato, Vacansoleil-Dcm Pro Cycling Team (vcd), at 9