Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) shot away from an elite group in the final 500 meters on Sunday to win the Amstel Gold Race, the first of the three Ardennes classics.
After a daylong break was finally reeled in with 32km to race, Alexander Kolobnev (Katusha) had been off the front in the final kilometers, pursued by a powerful bunch of contenders, among them Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Chris Horner (RadioShack).
But he saw his hopes come to naught on the steeps of the Cauberg, just short of the victory, as the chase gobbled him up and spit Gilbert out — straight toward the finish line. The 27-year-old Belgian, who last year won Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia but finished just off the podium at Amstel, in fourth, made it look easy.
“These were the most beautiful seconds of my career,” he said. “My victories last year at Paris-Tours and Lombardia gave me more confidence.”
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) took second with Enrico Gasparatto (Astana) third. Horner was the top American, crossing in 10th position.
The tough, hilly race near Maastricht in the Netherlands route covered 257km and featured 31 climbs. The weather was pleasant, with temperatures around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, light winds and no rain — though volcanic ash played a role in the 45th edition of the Dutch classic.
Of the 192 riders slated to start, only 178 riders toed the line in Maastricht, thanks to the Icelandic volcano that grounded air travel throughout Europe. Notable absentees included Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky). But Amstel’s loss was Flèche Wallonne’s gain, as both Sastre and Valverde decided to race the 74th edition of the race on Wednesday in Belgium.
An early break
The action got under way early on as seven riders slipped away at the 4.5km mark and built a lead of some six minutes at the 100km point. The group included Sebastien Delfosse (Landbouwkrediet), Peter Wrolich (Milram), Staf Scheirlinckx (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Rafael Valls (Footon-Servetto), Thierry Hupond (Skil-Shimano), Steven Van Vooren (Topsport-Vlaanderen) and Arnoud Van Groen (Vacansoliel)
With 115km remaining, the gap was coming down a bit, to just over five minutes. Saxo Bank was doing much of the work on behalf of former winner Frank Schleck and his brother Andy.
Thirty kilometers further along the leaders’ margin was down to 3:15, and Valls was struggling; he soon fell off the pace and the break was down to six riders as the Rabobank team lent some riders to the pursuit, among them Lars Boom.
A bridge to nowhere
Boom went boom on the Cauberg and shot backward out of the chase as Sander Armee (TopSport) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano) leapt forward, trying to bridge to the leaders, now some four minutes up the road. Dirk Bellemakers (Landbouwkrediet) joined them and they took a slight gap on the field.
A series of solo attacks followed from Martin Velits (HTC-Columbia), Andriy Grivko (Astana) and Niki Terpstra (Milram), but the peloton had decided there were enough people off the front and pulled them back in.
Sixty kilometers from the line, on the ascent of the Bemelerberg, the leaders held four minutes on the first chase and five on the bunch. Ten kilometers further along that was down to 2:44 and 2:50, respectively, and the Armee chase was over and done with.
On the slopes of the Wolfberg with 42km to go the break’s advantage was under two minutes, and Lampre, Quick Step and Rabobank were all sending riders forward. The six soldiered on, but without hope; they clearly knew the capture was coming. Only the serpentine character of the course kept hounds and hares from seeing each other.
With 35km to go the gap was just 15 seconds. And 3km thereafter, it was all over — gruppo compatto.
Twenty-five kilometers from the line the bunch remained tightly packed, with Rabobank in the driver’s seat. HTC-Columbia was there, too. A crash in a tight left-hand bend took down Rene Mandri (Ag2r La Mondiale), who went down and stayed down, and shortly thereafter Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil) finally opened the ball, laying down a strong attack on the Kruisberg.
With 20km to go Marcato was riding the Eyserbosweg alone. Until Andy Schleck attacked, that is. The Saxo man chased Marcato down on the steep grind, but he brought company with him, and soon it was a six-man group off the front with the peloton breathing down their necks.
“I am a little bit disappointed because I felt strong today. I was missing a little bit for the finale and I started to cramp up,” Andy Schleck said afterward. “I paid a little for my attack on the Eyserbos, but I couldn’t afford to wait. I know I will be good for Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”
On the Fromberg with 15km to race Cunego punched it, to no avail. Gilbert was there, too, with both Schlecks and Kolobnev.
Kolobnev’s teammate Sergei Ivanov launched with 13km to go, chased by Gilbert and world champion Cadel Evans (BMC). The three linked up, briefly, before Ivanov punched it again, going clear of the others on the Keutenberg.
Evans said he was working for teammate Karsten Kroon, who finished ninth.
“I was playing my role on the team when I got cramps with about 10km to go,” said the Aussie, who wound up 13th in his third assault on the Cauberg. “This is my best Amstel Gold. With the Giro three weeks away, it’s a good sign. Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday is more to my liking.”
Gilbert goes, then waits
Gilbert wasn’t waiting for Flèche. He chased Ivanov down, and then went off on his own, pursued by Kolobnev, Cunego and Ivanov. Then with 8km to go Kolobnev had a go, quickly taking a 10-second lead. The greatly reduced peloton — containing Horner, Andy Schleck and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) — was a further 10 seconds in arrears.
“When I saw a group of four going ahead, I knew it wasn’t ideal, with Gilbert and Cunego and Ivanov and Kolobnev,” said Frank Schleck. “If it had stayed like that, Gilbert would have won anyway. He was clearly the strongest today.”
Indeed, Gilbert said he had “good legs all day.”
“When I attacked the first time, when I saw the pursuit group of Cunego and Ivanov, I decided it was better to wait. It was a hard decision to make because I was feeling good,” Gilbert said. “But I also wanted to save strength for the finale.”
Four kilometers from the line Kolobnev clung to his slim lead, but he was looking over his shoulder. The Horner-Schleck group had swallowed up the four-man chase and was closing in on the leader.
Kolobnev was within sight of the win when he was swallowed up by the chase, and Gilbert laid down a powerful attack on the Cauberg, roaring away to take the victory with ease. Hesjedal was best of the rest, taking second, with Gasparatto rounding out the podium in third.
“I felt good throughout the race. I stayed near the front and the team did a great job working in the first 200km,” said the smiling winner, who became the first Belgian to win a spring classic this season. “I am also very content to give this victory for the team.”
And next? “To win Liège is a dream of everyone,” Gilbert said. “Flèche Wallonne isn’t ideal for me, because the final climb is so hard. But the changes to the course are good for me. The selection will be different.” — Andrew Hood and Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.
Top Ten results (Click here for full results)
- 1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel), Omega Pharma-Lotto, 257km in 6:22:54
- 2. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Garmin-Transitions, at 0:02
- 3. Enrico Gasparotto (Ita), Astana, at 0:02
- 4. Bert De Waele (Bel), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, at 0:05
- 5. Roman Kreuziger (Cze), Liquigas Doimo, at 0:05
- 6. Damiano Cunego (Ita), Lampre-Farnese Vini, at 0:05
- 7. Frank Schleck (Lux), Team Saxo Bank, at 0:07
- 8. Marco Marcato (Ita), Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team, at 0:09
- 9. Karsten Kroon (Ned), BMC Racing Team, at 0:11
- 10. Christopher Horner (USA), Team RadioShack, at 0:11