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Vuelta a Espana

“Cunning Fox” Gilbert now a favorite for road world championships

Philippe Gilbert's two stage victories at the Vuelta is proof that he's on fine form ahead of the UCI road world championship in Yorkshire.

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Belgian Philippe Gilbert gets better with age, says his Deceuninck-Quick Step team after it smashed stage 17th of the Vuelta a España for the win.

The former world champion out-sprinted the best sprinter of the Vuelta a España, Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe). The victory in Guadalajara came on the heels of the longest day ravaged by cross-winds.

“Gilbert is one of the smartest riders in the peloton,” Deceuninck-Quick Step sports director Wilfried Peeters told Sporza.

The 37-year-old won his second stage of the Vuelta a España, adding to a palmarès that includes the 2012 World Championships, wins in all three Ardennes Classics, Tour of Flanders, Lombardia and this spring, Paris-Roubaix.

“He knows perfectly what can happen and feels good about every scenario,” added Peeters. “If we think something, then he has already done it. He’s just a cunning fox.”

Gilbert’s victory was his second at this Vuelta—he won the hilly stage 12 into Bilbao after riding most of the day in the breakaway. The two victories are a sign that Gilbert is hitting his top form just ahead of the upcoming UCI road world championships in Yorkshire.

Gilbert will be a key player on Belgium’s super strong team for the road race, which already includes Greg van Avermaet, Dylan Teuns, Oliver Naesen, and 19-year-old wunderkind Remco Evenepoel. The Belgian federation will name the three remaining riders on September 16.

Gilbert now joins a short list of favorites for the hilly circuit in Yorkshire, alongside Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe, and Peter Sagan.

Will Gilbert be the Belgian squad’s outright leader? It’s difficult to see why not. Gilbert’s victory on stage 12 was a textbook example of his cunning race craft and potent acceleration on punchy terrain. Gilbert waited until the day’s final steep climb to unleash his effort, unleashing his winning effort on a punchy ramp reminiscent of the Mur de Huy.

Wednesday’s stage victory was something else entirely. Gilbert chased down heavy sprinter Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) on the flat and fast finish to the line, and then jumped away in the waning meters. It was a confirmation that Gilbert is riding on amazing form this late in the season.

“The most important thing, though, is that this confirms again I’ve got the form and the strength for the world championships,” Gilbert said after the stage.

Of course Gilbert’s victory came after a day of impeccable teamwork by Deceuninck-Quick Step. Amazingly, the Belgian super team had seven of its eight riders in the initial break. Only Maximiliano Richeze missed it. It drove the race to bits along with Movistar, who pushed 2016 winner Nairo Quintana from fourth to second overall. Gilbert focused on the sprint finish.

“Everyone was very nervous before the start of the ride. We had prepared the stage well and knew that after five kilometers, we had to be in the front to get everything in line,” Peeters continued.

“We succeeded immediately and I was surprised that so many teams had missed the battle.

“Because of the hard work of the teammates, Philippe was able to save himself a little in the final, and then finish it fantastically. Bennett was the fastest, but we were able to finish him when he went behind Stybar in the last kilometer.”

Over the 219.6 kilometers, the longest in the 2019 Vuelta, the peloton averaged 50.63kph.

“It’s a very special one,” Gilbert said. “I think it’s a stage that will stay in the history books because of the way we rode. It was crazy from the gun.”

Speaking of numbers, the team now counts 60 wins for the season. In second, Bora-Hansgrohe trails with 46.

“I like quality, more than quantity,” Peeters said. “I get 100 times more pleasure from a win like this than from another victory.

“Half an hour after Gilbert, riders continued to arrive. That is unseen for a flat stage. All the teams exploded in the back, and it just never stopped. It was a ride for the history books.

“This was a collective performance by the entire team. We just made history. Winning a mass sprint with the fastest rider, that’s easy. Finishing a stage with such a scenario, everyone shines.”

The Vuelta is back in the mountains for one of the last two mountain days scheduled in the 2019 edition.

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