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Unstoppable Gilbert in a class of his own at Flèche Wallonne

For 200 kilometres, the 2011 edition of Flèche Wallonne was, quite frankly, a dull affair – a far cry from the excitement we have been treated to so far during the spring Classics season. However, the race is 201 kilometres long, and any race with an uphill finish which features Philippe Gilbert at its denouement brings with it a guarantee of excitement. The Belgian rider powered away from the pack in the final 300 metres as if he had access to a different gear to claim his second Ardennes classic in the space of 72 hours, following last Sunday’s win at Amstel Gold. It gives him the opportunity to complete the hat-trick at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.

Flèche Wallonne starts at Charleroi and finishes in Huy after three closing circuits, each of which concludes on top of the fabled Mur de Huy, a 1.3km, 9.3% beast whose steepest sections touch 19% gradient.

Although 2010 winner Cadel Evans was absent through injury, this year’s race did provide the first opportunity to see Andy Schleck ride head-to-head against Alberto Contador, who now leads his former team Saxo Bank-Sungard.

Gilbert waves to the crowd as he celebrates his second Ardennes Classic win in three days (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

On a glorious spring day, a four-man break went away right from the start as the peloton were content to run at their own pace and enjoy the sunshine. Belgian riders Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) and Maxime Vantomme (Katusha) were joined by Matti Helminen (Landbouwkrediet) and Maciej Paterski (Liquigas-Cannondale), and the quartet built an advantage of over 17 minutes, eventually forcing Saxo Bank and Leopard-Trek to organise the chase in the peloton.

In the final 25km, several riders attempted to bridge the minute’s gap between the peloton and the disintegrating escape group, including Katusha‘s Alexandr KolobnevHTC-Highroad‘s Tejay Van GarderenSky‘s Thomas Lövkvist and Movistar‘s Vasil Kiryienka. The latter pair ended up alone at the front but with the peloton eager not to miss out on the finish they were easily reeled in with 8km remaining.

At this point Jérôme Pineau, hoping to rescue what has been a dismal season thus far for his Quick Step team, immediately counter-attacked off the front. He was followed by Vacansoleil‘s Marco Marcato and the pair plunged downhill towards Huy with a 20-second advantage as the peloton snaked out behind them, with some riders choosing to mount the pavement as themain contenders jockeyed for position towards the front of the pack.

The two leaders maintained a 14-second lead as they hit the lower slopes of the Mur de Huy for the third and final time and passed under the flamme rouge with 1km to go, but the gap was soon swallowed up as the leaders cranked up the pace behind them. Fränk Schleck and HTC’s Michael Albasini, winner of the mountains classification at the recent Tour of the Basque Country, led the way, with Gilbert, Rodríguez and Samuel Sánchez in close attendance as the favourites all kept a watchful eye on each other.

In the end it was Garmin-Cervélo‘s Christophe Le Mevel who lit the blue touch-paper, making a move off the front with around 500 metres remaining. Gilbert followed and waited patiently on his shoulder, biding his time before kicking round the outside of the Frenchman with 300 metres to go. He looked back and found everyone else huffing and puffing in his wake, allowing him to wave to the crowd and soft-pedal the final 50 metres to take an easy victory by three seconds.

Rodríguez was able to pull clear of Sánchez to claim the second step on the podium, while Alexandre Vinokourov headed a small group of four to claim fourth spot. Contador was just behind in 11th, with Andy Schleck down in 44th after he did not even attempt to contest the finish.

It hadn’t been a great race, but it was a great finish by the master of the uphill Classics who looks in unstoppable form right now. It would take a brave person to bet against him adding a first Liège-Bastogne-Liège triumph on Sunday.

The delighted winner was surprised by the margin and ease of his victory, having not always fared well on the Mur in the past:

It’s a huge pleasure, a bit of a surprise because I’ve suffered a lot in the past on the Mur de Huy. I had enough of an advantage to enjoy the end. It was something incredible today.

Gilbert is the first Belgian winner of Flèche Wallonne since Mario Aerts in 2002, and now has the chance to become the second man to complete the hat-trick of Ardennes Classics wins. Only Davide Rebellin (currently suspended for doping at the 2008 Olympics) has ever achieved this feat, in 2004.

Result:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 4:54:57

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:03

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:05

4. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +0:06

5. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) same time

6. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

7. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) s/t

8. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:09

9. Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo) +0:12

10. Paul Martens (Rabobank) s/t

2011 Ardennes Classics

Amstel Gold

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to Unstoppable Gilbert in a class of his own at Flèche Wallonne

  1. Pingback: Three-sy does it as Gilbert wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège « The armchair sports fan

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