Philippe Gilbert comes up empty at Amstel, looks for redemption at Liege

The world champion says he's coming into top form in time for his main goal of the spring season

VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — Peter Sagan (Cannondale) may have been the favorite, but perhaps no one came to the start of Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race under as much pressure as BMC’s Philippe Gilbert.

Gilbert narrowly missed out on his first win in the world champion’s rainbow stripes at Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, won by Sagan, and told VeloNews last week he had his sights set on the Ardennes classics after slugging his way through a rather anonymous early season.

In 2011 Gilbert launched a remarkable streak at the Brabantse Pijl, which he cemented with a win at Amstel, and rode it through the Ardennes, a Belgian championship, and all the way to a first-stage win in the Tour de France. Last year poor early season form ruined his classics campaign, but his world championships win on these very roads in September of 2012 suggested he was back.

On Sunday, Gilbert did his best to prove he was. Gilbert stormed out of the peloton in pursuit of race leader Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) on the final ascent of the Cauberg, but he fell short. The Belgian was swallowed up by the chase on the finish line, settling for fifth.

Instead of celebrating on the podium, Gilbert, his face darkened by one of the peloton’s first real days in the sun since the classics kicked off last month — and by 250km of accumulated dirt and dust — stood, resting on his bike, exhausted and swarmed by the media, 100 meters past the finish line.

“I tried to attack at the Cauberg,” a disappointed Gilbert told the media scrum. “It was difficult at the end, I didn’t have enough power to close the gap to Kreuziger, and then [Alejandro] Valverde and [Simon] Gerrans came back to me. I was hoping to get on the podium, but then the group came back to us, and I couldn’t do it.”

But the world champion added that, in spite of a finish that was nearly identical to that of the world championship race barely six months ago, uncertainty in the peloton about the changes to the course for this year’s edition of the Amstel race had hurt his overall chances. Race organizers extended the course some 1800 meters past the end of the Cauberg climb.

“There were too many riders together today,” Gilbert said. “The race wasn’t that hard. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time with the new track. The peloton knew the track from the world championships, but it’s the first time for Amstel. Actually it was better before.”

Still, fifth on the first warm day of a remarkably bitter early season may be a promising sign for things to come. Gilbert noted that while many riders suffered the effects of sun, wind, and warm weather, he felt comfortable with his performance. Race favorite Sagan, he speculated, had not adapted as well to summerlike conditions.

“Sagan was the favorite and he let his team [do a lot of] work,” said Gilbert, “but I saw at 50km from the finish Sagan was sweating really hard, and that he wasn’t very good today.”

Yet Gilbert had overcome more than just than warm temperatures today: he was nearly swept up in a disastrous crash just before the race’s second trip up the Cauberg. The world champion managed to get both feet on the ground instead of falling, but broke a wheel and was forced to wait several minutes for a replacement. Though he said the incident was “not that big a problem,” the effort to chase back to the peloton was undeniably costly.

And though Gilbert would surely like to repeat his incredible sweep of years ago, he also recognized that such a feat is likely a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. Instead, he said, he would be satisfied with a single classics victory next Sunday in a race he called his primary target.

“I think I’m ready for next week,” he said, “because that’s my main goal: Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I feel my condition is improving every day.”