Unbeatable: Philippe Gilbert takes 2011 Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Philippe Gilbert caps a sweep of the Ardennes classics, easily out-sprinting Fränk and Andy Schleck to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Philippe Gilbert takes a third straight triumph in an Ardennes classic. Photo: Graham Watson | <a href=
Philippe Gilbert takes a third straight triumph in an Ardennes classic. Photo: Graham Watson |

LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — There’s just no stopping the guy … even when he’s outnumbered two-to-one.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) capped off an impressive sweep of the Ardennes classics Sunday, easily out-sprinting the Leopard-Trek brother act of Fränk and Andy Schleck at the end of this year’s edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The three emerged at the front of this, 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.

With his win, Gilbert, locked up a rare hat trick of victories in the tough Ardennes classics after his Flèche Wallonne win Wednesday followed victory at the Amstel Gold race a week ago.

“It’s the most beautiful day of my sporting life,” Gilbert said. “I shall appreciate every moment of this day. It’s a perfect race.”

Gilbert and the Schlecks rode clear of the peloton with 21km to go, pulling back each member of a once-formidable break and finally ridding themselves of the last survivor, BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet, on the slopes of the day’s penultimate climb, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, with 5km remaining.

Gilbert attacked near the top of the climb, shedding Andy Schleck, but unable to rid himself of Fränk. Andy Schleck fought hard over the summit and rejoined the two leaders and the trio set to work, riding into the final kilometer together, with Andy leading the way on the long, false-flat approach to the finish in Ans.

While Fränk Schleck appeared ready to counter any move by Gilbert, the Belgian launched a strong charge to the line with 250 meters to go and neither of the Schlecks could come close to matching his pace.

“He was not beatable today,” said Andy Schleck.

Nine riders, 10 climbs

With 255.5km ahead, it was expected that the day would be marked by an early break, one closely monitored by the big favorites.

Thomas de Gendt. Photo: Graham Watson | <a href=
Thomas de Gendt makes the break. Photo: Graham Watson |

Walloon Sebastien Delfoss (Landbouwkrediet) showed himself early, hopping off the front in the third kilometer. Jesus Herrada (Movistar) and David Le Lay (Ag2r La Mondiale) found his wheel and the trio hung 15 seconds off the front until a group of six bridged across 25km in. The peloton cut the strings when Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Mathias Fränk (BMC Racing), Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), Tony Gallopin (Cofidis), Mickael Delage (FDJ) and Yannick Talabardon (Saur-Sajasun) joined the group and its advantage quickly went above a minute.

Gilbert’s Omega Pharma men ran the front of the peloton over the Côte de Saint-Roch, into the southernmost point of the circuit in Bastogne. Up front, the break pushed its advantage to its maximum at 3:40.

Andy Schleck said on Friday that the first half of the race is merely “transport,” and his Leopard squad came forward leaving Bastogne. The leaders’ advantage shrank to 2:10 as they arrived to the start of the business end of the race on the Côte de Wanne, the first of the nine concluding climbs over the final 158km.

Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) and Lars-Peter Nordhaug (Team Sky) stretched their legs on the Stockeau, taking a 15-second advantage over the top. The peloton reacted and by the top of the climb, the break sat just 1:10 up the road. The pair came back shortly after and Nordhaug went again, this time drawing out Jens Voigt (Leopard) and a counterattack from Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank). From there, the race was on.

With two Rabobanks, as well as Jerôme Pineau (Quick-Step), Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Van Avermaet making the Ten Dam group, Voigt came from the back of the peloton to the point to chase. Omega Pharma went to work as well, but the new group organized well and pushed ahead toward the Col du Rosier.

With two groups of more than eight riders up the road, the stakes were high.
The leaders splintered on the Rosier and five riders — Fränk, De Gendt, Gallopin, Vorganov and Herrada — remaining on front of the race. Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Danilo Di Luca (Katusha) and Gianpaolo Caruso (Astana) each took digs on the front of the peloton on the rolling descent to the Col du Maquisard, but couldn’t shake the Omega Pharma-led peloton.

Dario Cataldo did a mountain of work for his teammate Pineau to bring the chase onto the wheel of the leaders at the base of the Maquisard, the fifth-to-last climb of the day. They arrived as one group, 14 riders thick, with 50 seconds and pushed the gap over a minute at the summit. The break rolled in two tight columns, rotating smoothly with nearly no wind in the Ardennes.

High tension

Voigt again came to the front of the peloton, his drawn lips showing the depth of his effort. The German’s bike swayed under him while Jurgen Van Den Broeck’s open jersey waved behind him. Voigt came off the front and Leopard left Gilbert’s men to work.

Jens Voigt leads the peloton. Photo: Graham Watson | <a href=
Jens Voigt breaking legs in the bunch. Photo: Graham Watson |

Jan Baekelants made a big effort on the point for Omega Pharma and was blown; Gilbert was down to just two men, Van Den Broeck and Jelle Vanendert, ahead of Mont Theaux. And the gap was to 1:30.

But if La Doyenne is known for anything it’s that its climbs truly begin to take their toll at the end. Over the ensuing 20km, the break began to fracture just as Gilbert and the Schlecks moved out of the peloton with 21km remaining.

Andy Schleck hit out first on the Roche au Faucons. Fränk followed with Gilbert on his wheel. That acceleration low on the penultimate climb marked the last time they would be seen by the other favorites. Gilbert stood solidly on his pedals as he matched every rotation from the climbers.

“We attacked together, which we normally don’t do,” said Fränk Schleck. “We were just so strong.”

Just then defending champion Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) had an ill-timed flat. While benefiting from a quick bike change, Vino’s chances had essentially evaporated at that point.

Up the road, the Leopard/Omega Pharma trio ran through the remnants of the breakaway. Gilbert jumped as they passed Garate. Only Van Avermaet, Pineau and Gasparotto could hold on, but the latter two were soon dispatched as well under pressure from Fränk Schleck.

Mano a mano

“It was a bit of a touchy situation. I was against two brothers,” said Gilbert. “I wanted to show I was there and it was just a battle of man against man.”

With Gilbert always between them, the Schlecks shared the workload evenly with the Belgian. After 100km on front of the race, it was all Van Avermaet could do to suffer and stay on the wheel at the back of the group. Their gap grew above 30 seconds before arriving to the final climb, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas.

“They were really strong,” said Van Avermaet. “For me, it was really a good moment that they came to me. I could just take the wheel of Schleck.”

Philippe Gilbert leads the Schleck brothers. Photo: Graham Watson | <a href=
Philippe Gilbert leads the Schleck brothers. Photo: Graham Watson |

On Friday, Andy Schleck said he hoped to leave Gilbert before the Saint-Nicolas, but here he was. Approaching the climb, Andy nudged Fränk in front of him, onto Gilbert’s wheel. When Gilbert swung off the front, the younger Schleck, winner in Liège in 2009, accelerated. The Belgian followed easily and then countered.

Van Avermaet was gone, but so now was Andy Schleck. He clawed back on the mild terrain atop the Côte and went to the front as soon as he caught his brother and Gilbert. He knew it would be up to Fränk.

Gilbert knew another truth. “I knew we would face the winds in the straight at the finish, and that I would have the advantage,” he said.

Andy led out the finale up the false flat to the final corner. In the Omega Pharma car, director and longtime Gilbert coach Dirk de Wolf knew victory was theirs. Just as he had at the Amstel Gold Race a week earlier, Gilbert opened his sprint in the perfect moment and rode away to secure the second-ever sweep of the Ardennes classics and his fourth win in 12 days.

Fränk Schleck came through for second, and Andy third, all on the same time.

Roman Kreuiziger (Astana) led the first chase group through 24 seconds later with Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky) and Chris Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard).

Gilbert credited the Schleck brothers for the success of the final escape that led to his win.

“Hats off to the Schleck brothers who took their responsibilities very well,” Gilbert said. “They (and their team) did all the work when my teammates were in difficulty to bring back the breakaway. They are two class riders.”

Andy Scheck was likewise gracious in defeat.

“There was nothing that we could do. Gilbert is just a classy rider,” he said.

Quick results

  • 1. Philippe Gilbert, Omega Pharma-Lotto
  • 2. Fränk Schleck, Leopard-Trek
  • 3. Andy Schleck, Leopard –Trek
  • 4. Roman Kreuziger, Astana
  • 5. Rigoberto Uran, Sky

Complete results