By Andrew Hood
Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) won Het Volk for the second time in three years in the best style possible: with a dramatic solo victory.
Gilbert, winner of the Belgian season opener in 2006, attacked a lead group of favorites on the Eikenberg climb with about 60km to go in the 199km course across the Belgian heartland of Flanders.
He then reeled in the day’s main breakaway that included Mike Friedman (Slipstream-Chipotle) and before attacking again with a punishing acceleration with 22km to go to solo home to victory.
“I felt so strong in my legs. When I attacked on the Eikenberg I saw straight away that I was much stronger than the others,” said Gilbert. “To strike out alone out so far from home was a risk that’s for sure, but I just gave it all I had and it worked.”
The collaborative efforts of Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto) in a superstar chase group couldn’t neutralize the powerful Gilbert.
Gilbert won in 4 hours, 47 minutes, 28 seconds. Nuyens – victorious in 2005 – attacked the chase group with about 2km to go to claim second place at 54 seconds back. Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) slotted in third to fill out the podium.
Friedman came through in the second chase group in 12th in what was a fine day on the bike for the American.
Huge crowds turned out to cheer Belgium’s first race of the 2008 season, proof that cycling still is very much alive in the heartland of Flanders. Cloudy for mild weather welcomed the peloton, but gusty winds would be a factor later in the race.
Last year’s winner, Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), was racing in Spain and skipped the chance to defend on the new-look Het Volk.
Retired pro Peter Van Petegem was brought in to jazz up one of Belgium’s most important semi-classics and, from the look of the exciting race, he did a fine job.
Narrower roads, more cobblestones and tougher climbs were on tap for the 199km Belgian season opener in what’s always one of the most anticipated races of the year among that rare breed of racer who loves to bash the pavé.
The 199km route featured 11 climbs, some 16km of cobblestones and traces over narrower roads that would prove a perfect launching pad for Gilbert.
An ailing Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) pulled out before 20km just as the day’s main breakaway took hold.
Pulling away were Alexsandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Sebastien Minard (Cofidis), Friedman (Slipstream-Chipotle), Arnaud Gerard (FDJeux), David Boucher (Landbouwkrediet) and Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Pre-race favorites QuickStep tried its best to blow apart the race, sending Belgian national champion Stijn Devolder on the attack between the Kruisberg and Taaienberg climbs.
The searing attack split the peloton into several groups, but when Devolder looked around, none of his QuickStep teammates were around to help turn the screws.
It was Gilbert, however, who took control of the race.
He unleashed a blistering acceleration on the Eikenberg climb with about 60km to go that caught the powerful QuickStep team by surprise. Neither Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini nor Gert Steegmans could respond as Gilbert plowed alone toward the leading breakaway.
“We are certainly disappointed. We expected to be much higher than we do,” said QuickStep sport director Wilfried Peeters. “Devolder tried an attack and split up the peloton, but then, it was too late for us because we were out of position. The favorites went to the front and didn’t wait for us. We’ll try to rectify everything in Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.”
Several riders were caught up crashes. One of the worst involved Tyler Farrar (Slipstream-Chipotle) with about 60km to go, but he was able to finish. That’s just when the peloton break into two group and the sparks began to fly.
The race settled into a drag race over the final 30km.
The leading pair of Kuschynski (Liquigas) and Minard (Cofidis) were about 30 seconds ahead of the chasing remnants of the breakaway that still included Friedman (Slipstream-Chipotle), Gerard (FDJeux) and Krivtsov (Ag2r-La Mondiale). Gilbert then latched on with his teammate to help reel in the stubborn pair.
A super-star chase group about another 45 seconds included Cancellara and Allan Johansen (CSC), Nuyens (Cofidis), Nicolas Jalabert (Agritubel), Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto) and Hushovd (Credit Agricole).
Sensing that the front group was tiring after being off the front for more than 100km, Gilbert attacked again to take matters into his own hands.
Gilbert peeled away on a long, 2.5km section of cobbles at 22km to and tore into the wind. Kuschynski and Minard tried to follow, but Gilbert was gone.
“It wasn’t like I tried to follow him. It was still a long way to Ghent and I thought it would be more prudent to wait,” said Nuyens, who won in 2005. “In hindsight, it took too long for us to organize an effective chase group. By then, Gilbert was long gone. I can only admit that the strongest man won.”
Friedman dropped back to the Cancellara group that suddenly seemed to lose its life just as Gilbert was gaining ground.
The Belgian – winner of two stages and the overall at the Mallorca Challenge last month – continued to hammer the pedals alone and soon had a lead that edged beyond one minute with 17km to go.
With about 7km to go, the chase group split with Hushovd, Johansen, Hoste, Jalabert and Nuyens leaving behind the others.
A determined Gilbert powered over the final section of cobblestones at 50km/h with 6km to go nursing a lead of 1:08 and he roared into Ghent. The chase group started counter-attacking each other in an effort to secure the final podium, all but throwing in the towel to Gilbert.
Gilbert – who fought off a melanoma scare last season and only won one race in 2007 – soloed in alone and had plenty of time to savor the victory.
“It’s great because that gives me a lot of confidence for the big races to come. My dream is to win Milan to San Remo,” he said. “That’s the first big target of my season and I think I have proven that I am good enough to win it.”
Many of the same faces will be seen in Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne as the Belgian classics season kicks into gear.
63rd edition of Omloop Het Het Volk
1. Philippe Gilbert (B), Française des Jeux, at 4:55:25 (40,417 km/h),
2. Nick Nuyens (B), Cofidis, at 0:58
3. Thor Hushovd (N), Credit Agricole, at 1:06
4. Yuriy Krivtsov (Ukr), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 1:06
5. Aleksandr Kuschynski (Blr), Liquigas, at 1:12
6. Nicolas Jalabert (F), Agritubel, at 1:13
7. Leif Hoste (B), Silence-Lotto, at 1:13
8. Allan Johansen (Dk), CSC, at 1:16
9. Jan Kuyckx (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, at 1:53
10. Arnaud Gerard (F), Française des Jeux, at 1:53
11. Sebastien Minard (F), Cofidis, at 1:53
12. Michael Friedman (USA), Slipstream Chipotle – H30, at 1:58
13. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), CSC, at 2:07
14. Markus Eichler (G), Milram, at 4:26
15. Maarten Tjallingii (Nl), Silence-Lotto, at 4:31
16. Wouter Weylandt (B), Quick Step, at 4:37
17. Nico Sijmens (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, at 4:37
18. Murilo Fischer (Bra), Liquigas, at 4:37
19. Anders Lund (Dk), CSC, at 4:37
20. Roy Sentjens (B), Silence-Lotto, at 4:37
21. Steven Caethoven (B), Agritubel, at 4:37
22. Floris Goesinnen (Nl), Skil-Shimano, at 4:37
23. Kevin Ista (B), Agritubel, at 4:49
24. Max Van Heeswijk (Nl), Willems Veranda, at 4:49
25. Koen Barbe (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 4:49
26. Geert Verheyen (B), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 4:49
27. Ralf Grabsch (G), Milram, at 4:49
28. Filip Meirhaeghe (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, at 4:49
29. Loyd Mondory (F), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 4:49
30. Huub Duyn (Nl), Slipstream Chipotle – H30, at 4:49
31. Dmitriy Muravyev (Kaz), Astana, at 4:49
32. Christophe Laurent (F), Slipstream Chipotle – H30, at 4:49
33. Andy Cappelle (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, at 4:49
34. Kevin Neirynck (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, at 4:49
35. William Bonnet (F), Credit Agricole, at 4:49
36. Sylvain Chavanel (F), Cofidis, at 4:49
37. Laszlo Bodrogi (Hun), Credit Agricole, at 4:49
38. Mathieu Ladagnous (F), Française des Jeux, at 4:49
39. Tom Veelers (Nl), Skil-Shimano, at 6:32
40. Wilfried Cretskens (B), Quick Step, at 6:32
41. Kurt Hovelynck (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 6:32
42. Steffen Wesemann (Swi), Cycle Collstrop, at 6:32
43. Mathieu Criquielion (B), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 6:32
44. Stijn Ennekens (B), Willems Veranda, at 6:32
45. Roger Hammond (GBr), High Road, at 6:32
46. Michael Schär (Swi), Astana, at 6:32
47. Evert Verbist (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 6:32
48. Mauro Da Dalto (I), Liquigas, at 6:32
49. Jimmy Casper (F), Agritubel, at 6:32
50. Preben Van Hecke (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 6:32
51. Emilien-Benoît Berges (F), Agritubel, at 6:32
52. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), Cofidis, at 6:32
53. Jurgen Roelandts (B), Silence-Lotto, at 6:32
54. Arnaud Labbe (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 6:32
55. Martin Elmiger (Swi), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 6:32
56. Jason Donald (USA), Slipstream Chipotle – H30, at 6:32
57. Gabriel Rasch (N), Credit Agricole, at 6:32
58. Gerben Löwik (Nl), Rabobank, at 6:32
59. Sebastien Hinault (F), Credit Agricole, at 6:32
60. Mathew Hayman (Aus), Rabobank, at 6:32
61. Martin Müller (Swi), Milram, at 6:32
62. Enrico Poitschke (G), Milram, at 6:32
63. Stijn Vandenbergh (B), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 6:35
64. Frederic Guesdon (F), Française des Jeux, at 6:35
65. Enrico Franzoi (I), Liquigas, at 6:35
66. Joost Posthuma (Nl), Rabobank, at 6:35
67. Mickaël Delage (F), Française des Jeux, at 6:35
68. Guennadi Mikhailov (Rus), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 6:35
69. Stijn Devolder (B), Quick Step, at 6:35
70. Serguei Ivanov (Rus), Astana, at 6:35
71. Gorik Gardeyn (B), Silence-Lotto, at 6:35
72. Anthony Geslin (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 6:35
73. Steven De Jongh (Nl), Quick Step, at 6:35
74. Kevin De Weert (B), Cofidis, at 6:35
75. David Boucher (F), Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, at 6:35
76. Lars Bak (Dk), CSC, at 6:35
77. Frank Hoj (Dk), Cofidis, at 6:35
78. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sp), Rabobank, at 6:35
79. Tom Stubbe (B), Française des Jeux, at 6:35
80. Gianni Meersman (B), Française des Jeux, at 6:35
81. Gregory Rast (Swi), Astana, at 6:35
82. Johan Van Summeren (B), Silence-Lotto, at 6:35
83. Rik Verbrugghe (B), Cofidis, at 6:35
84. Frederik Willems (B), Liquigas, at 6:35
85. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step, at 6:35
86. Niki Terpstra (Nl), Milram, at 6:35
87. Bram Tankink (Nl), Rabobank, at 6:38
88. Sebastian Langeveld (Nl), Rabobank, at 6:38
89. Kevin Hulsmans (B), Quick Step, at 6:38
90. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step, at 6:38
91. Koen De Kort (Nl), Astana, at 6:51
92. Kenny Van Braeckel (B), Willems Veranda, at 6:54
93. Steven Cozza (USA), Slipstream Chipotle – H30, at 6:54
94. Dieter Cappelle (B), Willems Veranda 6:54
95. Marco Marcato (I), Cycle Collstrop, at 6:54
96. Mirko Selvaggi (I), Cycle Collstrop, at 6:54
97. Tomas Buchacek (Cze), PSK Whirlpool-Author, at 6:54
98. Aurelien Clerc (Swi), Bouygues Telecom, at 6:54
99. Sven Nevens (B), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 6:54
100. Alexandre Pichot (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 6:54
101. Tom Steels (B), Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner, at 6:54
102. Robert Wagner (G), Skil-Shimano, at 6:54
103. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner, at 6:54
104. Paul Martens (G), Rabobank, at 6:54
105. Bart Vanheule (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 6:54
106. Mathieu Heijboer (Nl), Cofidis, at 6:54
107. Erki Pütsep (Est), Bouygues Telecom, at 6:54
108. Jarno Van Mingeroet (B), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 6:54
109. Vytautas Kaupas (Ltu), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 9:12
110. Jens Mouris (Nl), Mitsubishi-Jartazi, at 9:12
111. Renaud Dion (F), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 12:33
112. Harald Starzengruber (A), Elk Haus-Simplon, at 12:33
113. Frederik Veuchelen (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 12:33
114. Jimmy Engoulvent (F), Credit Agricole, at 15:10
115. Servais Knaven (Nl), High Road, at 15:10
116. Martin Velits (Svk), Milram, at 15:10
117. Rony Martias (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 15:10
118. Manuel Quinziato (I), Liquigas, at 15:10
119. Stephane Poulhiès (F), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 15:10
120. Sven Renders (B), Topsport Vlaanderen, at 18:19
121. Sjef De Wilde (B), Willems Veranda, at 18:19
122. Jochen Summer (A), Elk Haus-Simplon, at 18:19
123. Steffen Radochla (G), Elk Haus-Simplon, at 18:19
124. Vicente Reynes (Sp), High Road, at 18:19
125. Daniel Musiol (G), Volksbank, at 18:19
126. Fabien Bacquet (B), Skil-Shimano, at 18:19
127. Tyler Farrar (USA), Slipstream Chipotle – H30, at 18:19
128. Leopold König (Cze), PSK Whirlpool-Author, at 18:19
129. Vincent Jerome (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 18:19
130. Aaron Kemps (Aus), Astana, at 18:19
131. Fumiyuki Beppu (Jpn), Skil-Shimano, at 18:19
132. Bernhard Eisel (A), High Road, at 18:19
133. Sebastian Siedler (G), Skil-Shimano, at 18:19
134. Matti Breschel (Dk), CSC, at 18:19
135. Albert Timmer (Nl), Skil-Shimano, at 18:19
136. Kristof De Zutter (B), Willems Veranda, at 18:19
137. Lucas Persson (S), Cycle Collstrop, at 18:19
138. Carlo Westphal (G), Gerolsteiner, at 18:19
139. Marcus Ljungqvist (S), CSC, at 18:19
140. Marc De Maar (Nl), Rabobank, at 18:19
141. Thomas Fothen (G), Gerolsteiner, at 18:19
142. David Kopp (G), Cycle Collstrop, at 18:19
143. Andre Greipel (G), High Road, at 18:19