After attacking into failed breakaways throughout the opening half of this year’s race, Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick Step) made a move stick on Thursday’s 12th stage. The Belgian attacked over the route’s final steep climb and then held off two chasers to take a solo victory in downtown Bilbao.
Behind Gilbert, there was no change to the general classification, as the main group of GC favorites crossed the line together, nearly three minutes behind the Belgian. Overnight leader Primoz Roglic still holds red.
“It was a long fight to get into the breakaway,” Gilbert said. “We had been trying a lot. When we went away, I saw some good climbers with me, so I was not really confident on my chances to win, so I tried to race smart.”
Gilbert was part of the day’s 19-man breakaway that finally separated itself after more than 100 kilometers of racing across the hilly 171-kilometer stage through Spain’s Basque country. The size and strength of the group made it destined to go the distance, and behind, leader Primoz Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma squad appeared happy to let it go.
Present in the group were Philippe Gilbert and Tim Declercq (Deceuninck-QuickStep), John Degenkolb and Jacopo Mosca (Trek-Segafredo), Valerio Conti and Marco Marcato (UAE Team Emirates), Jonathan Lastra and Alexander Aranburu (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Cyril Barthe and Fernando Barceló (Euskadi-Murias), Francisco Ventoso (CCC Team), José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar), Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb), Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida), Manuele Boaro (Astana), Willie Smit (Katusha-Alpecin), Tsgabu Grmay (Mitchelton-Scott), Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Soudal), and Felix Grossschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The hilly stage included three third-category climbs in the final 40 kilometers, including the punishingly steep Alto de Arraiz, which averages 10.6 percent over 2.6 kilometers.
Grossschartner attacked on the descent of the first climb, and was then joined by Grmay for the ascent of the third-category Alto El Vivero. The two built a 30-second lead on the chasers by the top of the climb.
But the chase quickly brought the gap down, thanks to the presence of riders with teammates. Gilbert and De Declercq did several long pulls on the front to bring back the duo with 10 kilometers remaining.
“I had a big help with my teammate Tim Declercq, and he deserves [the victory] as much as I do,” Gilbert said.
The group hit the base of the final climb and Gilbert went right to the front, putting in an acceleration on the first steep pitch. The move drew out Aranburu and Barceló, and the trio briefly rode together through the midpoint of the climb.
Then, Gilbert kicked again, and this acceleration shed his breakaway companions for the final stretch of the climb. The Belgian accelerated over the summit, and then put his head down for the drop to the finish. His advantage was never more than 10 seconds, and the duo appeared to claw back more time in the final flat run-in to the finish. But Gilbert had just enough space to raise his hands and celebrate the win.
It is his sixth stage victory at the Vuelta a España, and his 10 grand tour stage win.
Gilbert said he was helped along on the steep climb by the cheering local fans.
“It was a crazy the atmosphere on the last climb— it was really like in the classics with all the flags and everything,” Gilbert said. “They gave me a lot of motivation. I’ve been racing a lot here and never had success and this is the first time because it is Basque country is almost like Flanders. They love cycling here and it is nice.”