There is a short list of riders for whom editors would have a hard time choosing their best ten wins of a single year. Belgian Philippe Gilbert, with at least 16 major wins so far this season, leads the list.
The UCI WorldTour rankings leader lines up Saturday at the Giro de Lombardia, where he is among the favorites. If he does close out the season with a win, we’ll have to add an 11th greatest win of 2011.
After an attack-filled day over the white gravel road used in Italy’s newest classic, Gilbert was able to outsprint Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) for the win.
It was Gilbert’s second win of 2011, following his stage 1 win at the Volta ao Algarve in February.
The day after coming up short on an uphill finish that many thought would favor his strengths, Gilbert outsprinted a 13-man group to take the stage win in Castelraimondo, Italy.
The twisty stage 5 finish, while flat, favored Gilbert’s tactical problem solving abilities.
“I knew the bends would slow the riders, so I was hoping for a chance and waited quietly … Today was a problem for me, but finally I win and it’s not a problem.”
Gilbert launched a violent attack midway up the Cauberg climb to claim his second Amstel Gold Race in a row.
It was the third consecutive hilly classic win, cementing his position as king of the Ardennes.
“I wasn’t forced to go on the attack, I only had to make an extra effort in the final three kilometers, which allowed me to win,” said Gilbert. “It was up to me to assume my responsibilities as favorite and that is what I did.”
Gilbert made the most of his home-region win at the Flèche Wallonne and set himself up for the rare sweep of the Ardennes.
The newest king of the classics turned on the gas and struck the match 400 meters from the finish, letting off a fierce acceleration just beyond the steepest section of the finish climb.
“I had no doubt when I made that attack,” said Gilbert. “I made the best of my position. I saw that on the top, (Alberto) Contador and (Joaquim) Rodriguez were badly placed and I made the best of it.”
Fans screamed Gilbert’s name and bells rang as he rose onto the finish straight, eight lengths clear of Rodriguez. The Spaniard, who many picked as the top favorite, made time on the mellowing road atop the Mur, but in the end, Gilbert was too strong.
As he approached the finish, Gilbert waved his right hand, urging the crowd for more volume and the scene was deafening by the time he locked in his third win in a week.
Gilbert completed his sweep of the Ardennes classics by outsprinting a punch-drunk Andy and Fränk Schleck at the end of Flèche Wallonne.
The three had emerged at the front of the oldest of the classics, after reeling in the remnants of a daylong break over the tough series of climbs that mark the final third of La Doyenne.
“He was not beatable today,” said Andy Schleck afterward.
Belgian road and TT championships
After finishing second three times (and third once), Gilbert finally broke through and won the Belgian champions jersey in the road race in June. Then on August 15, he won the national time trial championships (where he had finished second once before), ensuring that he has a champion’s jersey to wear in every event he starts.
Gilbert won his first career Tour stage and took the first yellow jersey of the 2011 Tour on a stage that appear tailor made for the star.
With a 200 meter kicker at the end, many pundits predicted a Gilbert win, and he came in confident.
“It was a magical last 100 meters,” said Gilbert, who had prepared by dying his hair blond. He started the day wearing a wrist watch in his Belgian national championship colors. But had some post-stage fashion accessories available, as well.
With barely six hours of sleep after a late flight back from Belgium, Gilbert got back into to the one-day classic mode after a few post-Tour criteriums. Gilbert’s inevitable attack came 3.8km from the finish. There was nothing the competition could do.
“I attacked and attacked and attacked all day, because I knew Gilbert would be strong in the finale,” said Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo, a former winner who wound up second this year.
“When Gilbert attacked in the end, I just didn’t have the legs to follow. None of us did.”
Gilbert scored his 15th win of the season, in Andenne, Belgium, on the third stage of the Eneco Tour. He also took over the race’s GC lead.
Gilbert took off with seven kilometers to go and finished alone 8 seconds ahead of Lampre’s Grega Bole and RadioShack’s Ben Hermans.
Gilbert, understandably, said he was tired and not on his best form coming into the late season races in Canada. But the uphill finish in Québec suited his abilities, as did the extra kilometers organizers added this year, which allowed only the very strongest riders to contend for the win.
And just as happened so many times in 2011, when Gilbert laid down his late-race attack, though it came as a surprise to no one, no other rider could match the pace. This time the attack came on the Côte de la Potasse, a 420-meter climb that averages 9 percent.
“The race was really hard, and in the last lap everyone was tired,” Gilbert said. “No one wanted to attack, and the wind was blowing strong, especially at the finish line. It was difficult to control the race. I didn’t have any teammates. I was alone, and I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it.”
He got out of it by attacking on the Potasse and holding off a one-man chase from Rabobank’s Robert Gesink. Gesink kept Gilbert honest, closing to within three seconds of him at the finish line.
Gilbert’s 2011 wins (as of Friday afternoon):
- Belgium road race championship
- Belgian time trial championship
- Tour of Belgium (overall and 1 stage)
- Ster ZLM Toer (overall and 1 stage)
- Tour de France, stage 1
- Amstel Gold Race
- Flèche Wallonne
- Clásica de San Sebastián
- GP de Québec
- Monte Paschi Strade Bianche
- Brabantse Pijl
- GP de Wallonie
- Tirreno-Adriatico, stage 5
- Volta ao Algarve, stage 1
- Eneco Tour, stage 3