Robert Gesink put in one of the finest performances in classics history Sunday to win a superb first edition of the Grand Prix de Montréal. And this spectacularly exciting race, on a spectacularly difficult course, watched by a spectacularly enthusiastic crowd, will be regarded as a true “classic” before too long.
“That was painful,” Gesink said at the end of the 16-lap, 193.6km ProTour race after he boldly held on to a narrow solo lead with a brave, mouth-wide-open effort over the final 10km.
The gap at the end was just four seconds over five men who’d been chasing him for most of that final lap. They were led in by the Slovak Peter Sagan of Liquigas, who took a last-gasp second place ahead of Canadian Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions, followed by Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack, Belgian Maxime Montfort of HTC-Columbia and Spain’s Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi. There was a sixth rider in the chase, Norway’s Edvald Boasson-Hagen of Team Sky, but he fell on the sharp U-turn 550 meters from the line.
“I think it’s my biggest victory,” Gesink said later. “It was my first in a one-day ProTour race, so it’s very special, especially on a course that had nearly 4,000 meters (over 12,000 feet) of climbing.”
It was similar to his memorable stage win in the toughest mountain stage of this year’s Tour of Switzerland; but then he had a much bigger margin to play with, and he only had to negotiate a long downhill to the finish. In Montréal Sunday, after gaining just 10 seconds in his destructive attack on the brutal climb to the summit of Mont Royal, he had to do what was an epic time trial, his lead holding between just six and eight seconds the whole way.
Gesink raced that final 12.2km lap in just 16:46, the fastest of the day, at an average speed of 43.230 kph (26.24 mph). That was a performance of the very highest order after five hours in the saddle. Only the sport’s very finest athletes can attain such a level.
“Robert was amazing,” said third-place Hesjedal, “Congrats to him. And my team was amazing. I think we took control of the race and rode honoring my No. 1 bib. I just left it all out there.”
The lean 29-year-old Canadian, having the best season of his career, went on the compliment Sagan, the 20-year-old rookie who first astounded the cycling world with two stage wins at this year’s Paris-Nice. “I didn’t have the pleasure of riding Paris-Nice to see his coming-out party,” Hesjedal said, “but I have since witnessed his great riding and he obviously showed that today. I can’t be upset at all with a third place here.”
Sagan himself internalizes his feelings, and in his hesitant Italian he only modestly acknowledged that he took second place. And when he was asked how he hoped to perform at his first world elite men’s road championship next month, he simply said, “I’ll be happy to finish, maybe in the top 20.”
Huge crowds, great race
Crowds were massive from the very start despite overcast skies and rain in the forecast. The opening lap was raced in a very fast 17:04, a pace that saw the day’s long break started by Gesink’s Rabobank teammate Maarten Tjallingii and Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre.
Caisse d’Épargne’s Angel Madrazo was the first to join them, as would Lampre’s Alfredo Balloni and Quick Step’s Kevin Seeldraeyers — after the lithe Belgian made a great climb the second time up Mont Royal, a 1.8km uphill averaging an 8-percent grade.
The five leaders became four when Balloni crashed out after losing control on the Mont Royal downhill. riding into a pothole on the shoulder and somersaulting over his bars into some long grass. He didn’t rejoin the race and joined his sick Liquigas team leader Ivan Basso who didn’t even start.
The four remaining men plowed ahead for the next 10 laps, with Madrazo spurting ahead each climb to take the King of the Mountains title, as they held onto a lead that attained a maximum of four minutes. After RadioShack initially chased the break, it was Boasson Hagen’s Sky troops that did most of the tempo setting, later assisted by Garmin and Lampre.
But Gesink was always calmly following. “We were in a good position all day with Maarten Tjallingii in the break,” Gesink said. “And the final only began when Maarten was dropped by the strong group (that went) in front (with four laps to go).”
This move was a violent acceleration by RadioShack’s Tiago Machado at the foot of the Mont Royal climb, an effort that released him, his teammate Chris Horner, Daniel Oss of Liquigas, Chris Anker Sørensen of Saxo Bank, and Francesco Gavazzi of Lampre. They quickly caught and dropped the remnants of the early break.
Machado buried himself to make the move stick, but their 36-second lead was cut to only 12 seconds as they hit the climb for the second-to-last time. “We really had to work hard.” Gesink said about his teammates’ efforts, “along with the team of Ryder.” Garmin’s Peter Stetina and Svein Tuft were the only Garmin men left with their leader, and without their brilliance the gap would have stayed much larger.
That penultimate climb saw Frenchman Cyril Gautier of BBox cross the gap to Horner, Gavazzi and Sørensen as Oss fell off the pace with Machado. But the most significant move (or rather aborted move) came from Gesink, who momentarily bolted out of the chase group as if it was standing still, only to ease up almost immediately. He knew it was still too early.
“I had to wait and wait and wait until the last lap,” he commented. “I felt good and it’s difficult to wait because you want to try to make a difference, but I waited until the last lap.” This time, after more heroics from Stetina and Tuft helped snuff out the 28-second lead of Horner’s group, Gesink’s effort was for real. No one could match it. And he rapidly created that 10-second gap.
“At the top I was hoping it was enough to make it to the finish,” he said. “It was a pretty tough struggle. Of course the whole last lap you wonder if it’s enough. But you can’t think about that. You just try to give the best you’ve got, give it all to make it to the finish first … and the last corner, standing still and to speed up again from zero uphill was really painful seeing he guys coming from the back. But it was just enough. I made it and I’m really happy.”