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Vuelta a Espana

Philippe Gilbert seizes opportunity as Joaquim Rodriguez steals seconds

The Belgian needed a victory badly, and the Spaniard needs all the seconds he can get before the Vuelta's ITT

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BARCELONA (VN) – It’s unlikely that Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) has gone this long without a victory since he started racing as a teen-ager in Belgium.

The Belgian superstar ended his nearly yearlong drought with an impressive win over the Montjuic climb in Sunday’s ninth stage of the Vuelta a España, in the heart of Barcelona, just in time to raise hopes he can still salvage what’s arguably been a flat season with a world title next month.

Gilbert got up and over the short but steep climb with race leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and the pair collaborated to drive it to the line, with both coming up big as the Vuelta hits its equador and the first of two rest days.

“This is a very special victory because I have had a very hard season behind me,” Gilbert said. “I have had a lot of critics in the press in Belgium, but I have never stopped trying to win.”

As he mentioned, his last win came with the GP de Wallonie on September 14 last year, which capped a spectacular, 18-win season.

That impressive haul helped ease the way for a multimillion-euro contract with BMC.

When the wins stopped, however, the tongues started wagging. Gilbert was getting his fair share of heat in the cycling-mad Belgian media, which had become accustomed to his winning ways and were expecting more from the cyclist who ended the 2011 season ranked No. 1 in the world.

This season, Gilbert has had his lowest world ranking — now 68th at — since his rookie season in 2003, when he ended the season 243rd. Since 2008, Gilbert has consistently been among the top 10 in the world and an equally consistent winner of big races.

Early season illnesses and some bad luck kept Gilbert off the winner’s podium all year, and some suggested that Gilbert was going soft after signing his multi-year deal with BMC. But he insisted that was never the case.

“I was so happy to win, because it’s been a hard season for me. There were a lot of expectations for me this season, but I never stopped fighting,” Gilbert said. “I always had the confidence of the team, family and supporters, so I could see what was important. You can see who your friends are. It was very hard for me. I have never had a bad season like this. I always stayed fighting and training. I never lost the idea of winning a race.”

While things might have gone cross-eyed for Gilbert for much of the 2012 season, the scenario played out perfectly for him Sunday.

Following the team plan, BMC sent Alessandro Ballan clear near the base of the short but steep Montjuic climb, but the climb is much steeper than it looked in the Vuelta roadbook. Rodríguez countered in his wake, looking to take any seconds he could wrestle from his GC rivals. Just as BMC had hoped, Gilbert bridged across and the duo had complementing interests: “Purito” wanted time and Phil-Gil wanted the win.

“When I saw Alessandro (Ballan) to go, I looked up and saw the top, it was a long way. When I saw Rodríguez starting to attack, I started to go, because I cannot give him 10 seconds to him. I crossed the gap to him, that was a good thing,” Gilbert said.

“I started the descent full gas. We had a small gap. I was riding as if it was a TT until it was 500m to go. I said to myself, ‘Now I put pressure on him.’ We didn’t have time to talk, but I looked at him, ‘OK, now it’s your turn to take some seconds.’ Then I went with 150 meters for the sprint and I won, so that was good. … I am so happy to win in a BMC jersey.”

The victory comes as a salve as well for BMC, which has a respectable 15 victories on the 2012 season, including fifth overall and the best young rider’s jersey at the Tour de France with Tejay van Garderen, but came up empty during the spring classics as well as at the Tour with defending champion Cadel Evans despite having one of the biggest payrolls in the peloton.

BMC sport director John Lelangue said the team never lost faith in their star rider despite a bumpy season.

“It’s good to have the first victory with Philippe after all what was happening this season,” Lelangue said. “That’s sport, that’s cycling. It’s not a relief. You have to accept what is happening, with illness, with physical problems, sometimes you have to wait and be patient. After all he has done, it shows that Philippe Gilbert is back.”

In addition to hunting his first win of the 2012 season, Gilbert is also riding the Spanish tour to prepare for the world championships next month.

With his goal of winning a stage at the Vuelta already in the bag, Gilbert will next turn his focus to the worlds course in Valkenburg, Holland. With the race ending just after the Cauberg climb, the setting of the finish of Amstel Gold Race, which Gilbert won in 2011 and finished third this year, an on-form Belgian champion will be one of the hot favorites for the rainbow jersey.

For Rodríguez, having Gilbert along for the ride over Montjuic was also an ideal scenario.

The pair drove it home nine seconds clear of the chasing Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome group, meaning “Purito” added a few more precious seconds to his lead.

“I wanted to win the stage and that’s why I attacked,” said Rodríguez, who hails from Barcelona. “Once I saw that Gilbert was on my wheel and when I looked back and didn’t see my rivals, I decided to keep pulling to maintain the gap. I am not going to say that Gilbert sucked my wheel, but he didn’t pull as hard as me. In the end, I tried to save a little so I could stay on the wheel in the sprint and not lose time.”

Rodriguez keeps chipping away. Coupled with another second-place eight-second time bonus, Rodríguez now has widened his lead to Sky’s Froome to 53 seconds, with Alberto Contador in third at 1:00 and Valverde fourth at 1:07.

Rodríguez, who lost the Giro d’Italia to Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) by just 16 seconds, knows that every little bit will help come crunch time in the final week of the Vuelta.

With Monday’s transfer and Tuesday’s transition stage in Galicia, all eyes are already on Wednesday’s 39.4km individual time trial, the lone test against the clock in this year’s Vuelta. Rodríguez says he trying to play the time bonuses and his short, but effective attacks to take as much time as he can.

“I am scratching away at seconds like an ant because I know I am going to take a kangaroo’s jump backwards in the time trial,” Rodríguez joked. “I know that I am not a rider who can make big differences in the mountains and take one minute. I have to take advantage of every opportunity to open an advantage and try to get on the Vuelta podium, and — why not? — win.”

Monday’s rest day probably doesn’t come a day too soon for Froome, who seemed to struggle in the explosive final kilometers and finished near the back of the big chase group that crossed the line 12 seconds adrift. Despite Team Sky once again leading Froome to the base of the Montjuic, the short, high-speed assault up Montjuic seemed to catch the Tour runner-up off-guard.

That comes a day after ceding time and missing out on the finish-line time bonuses in the equally steep final kilometer of the Gallina climb in Andorra on Saturday. Froome remains in second place overall, but has given up valuable ticks of the second hand that he will have to snatch back from Rodríguez in Wednesday’s time trial.

Contador, meanwhile, went on an early attack with about 5km to go, well before hitting the Montjuic climb, perhaps in a move to draw out the field and get into good position for the climb. He later did not have the explosiveness to follow Rodríguez and Gilbert.

With the leading four still all knotted up within about one minute of each, Wednesday’s time trial will have even more importance in the over GC battle with the hardest and most decisive part of the Vuelta still to come.

The cyclists and key staff were in a hurry to catch an evening flight to Galicia. The team buses and support staff were making the long, 1200km drive to northwest Spain, where the 67th Vuelta resumes Tuesday in undulating stage along the Galician coast ideal for the Vuelta’s sprinters.