VILT, Netherlands (VN) — Philippe Gilbert left no doubt Sunday on the Cauberg, launching a violent attack midway up the climb to claim his second Amstel Gold Race in a row. The win was the third consecutive hilly classic for the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider, who cemented his position as king of the Ardennes.
The 28-year-old Gilbert surged ahead of Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez after the Spaniard countered the catch of a solo Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) low on the finish climb. Rodriguez faded but held on for second while Simon Gerrans (Sky) crossed third.
“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 and teammate Jelle Vanendert did a load of work in the final 10km to pull back Schleck, who had gone clear 11 kilometers from the finish. Gilbert and the Schleck brothers entered as three of the top favorites Sunday; Andy came through outside of the top 10, while his brother Fränk and Swiss star Fabian Cancellara watched the race go up the road when they were held up in a crash 23km from the finish.
“It’s a punch in the stomach,” said Fränk Schleck. “I’m not angry on anybody; I have some regrets, but things, they happen.”
The first 60 kilometers over the northernmost — and mildest — portion of the parcours was lightning fast before a breakaway established. Riders averaged 45 kph in the opening 90 minutes.
Eventually four riders cut free to face the serpentine, furniture-filled roads on their own. Simone Ponzi (Liquigas-Cannondale), Pierpaolo De Negri (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli), Thomas Degand (Veranda’s Willems-Accent) and Yann Huguet (Skil-Shimano) built an lead of more than 11 minutes, but when the gap shrank below three minutes a train of Rabobank riders, resplendent in their special-issue Ride for the Roses jerseys, upped the tempo in the bunch on the descent of the Huls berg with 95km remaining.
Huguet wore the weight of the Limburg climbs on his face as he became the first of the escapees to falter at the base of the finish ramp in Valkenburg. On the second of three trips over the Cauberg, the break splintered, the chasing peloton just over a minute behind. De Negri and Degand held just 40 seconds atop the climb and the peloton scooped up their former mates by the time Paris-Roubaix winner Johan van Summeren climbed into the Garmin-Cervélo bus two minutes later.
Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) countered the catch and bridged across quickly, followed by HTC-Highroad’s Jan Ghyselinck. That move — and several to follow — came undone within a few kilometers and when the peloton arrived to the village of Schwieberg 34km from the finish, it swelled six riders wide.
After riding a late acceleration to second at Amstel Gold in 2010, it was not to be Ryder Hesjedal’s day. The Garmin-Cervélo rider was back in the cars before the Gulperberg at 28km to go and not seen at the front again.
It was 2km later that Cancellara inexplicably hit the deck. Fränk Schleck was on his teammate’s wheel and had no hope. A few hundred meters after remounting, Schleck pushed his machine aside in frustration, forced to make a bike change right at the base of the Kruisberg. The timing could not have been worse.
“He’s the best bike handler we’ve ever seen. He crashes once every five years. Today I was in his wheel because you can trust him with your eyes closed,” said Schleck. “It was the key moment.”
Rabobank’s Bram Tankink opened the serious affairs with an acceleration halfway up the climb, forcing Leopard’s Jacob Fuglsang to pull the chase group of around 20 riders away from Fränk Schleck. When Fuglsang drew Tankink in on the Eyserbosweg with 20km to go, Alexander Kolobnev (Katusha) forced another selection.
Gilbert was there with teammates Vanendert and Vandenbroeck. There too were Andy Schleck and Fuglsang; Gerrans; Degand; Vacansoleil-DCM’s Bjorn Leukemans and Johnny Hoogerland; Rabobank’s Tankink, Robert Gesink and Oscar Freire; Danilo Di Luca (Katusha); Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana); Ben Hermans (RadioShack); Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD); and Sylvain Chavenel (Quick-Step).
From that point on, the group rarely saw a jersey other than Omega Pharma’s on its head. Rodriguez took a turn when the group dove left onto the 22-percent ramp at the base of the penultimate climb, the Keutenberg. The move shed Chavanel, Vinokourov and Cunego, but Vanendert remained planted patiently on the front. When Rodriguez came back, Kolobnev again went, this time on a slight descent. It was that acceleration that set Schleck up for his flyer.
“We planned to go a little bit earlier,” said Schleck. “When I attacked it was still a pretty big group for Amstel Gold Race. … I felt I had to go full gas, but they were pretty quickly organized behind me.”
Just as his teammate Fuglsang came away from the front of the group, Schleck shot from the tail up the left gutter and got a quick five-second gap. He sunk low into a time trial position, pressing his wrists into the tops of his bars, his weight placed forward on his saddle.
Behind, Vanendert pulled and pulled. Gilbert looked for help, but no one bit. Despite having Gesink and Freire in the move, Rabobank refused. Hoogerland pulled through a few times, but was back in the rotation almost as soon as he hit the wind.
“Against a rider like this, it’s not possible (to win) at this moment,” said Freire. “Today I was okay. There was a chance to win, but we saw in the last kilometer that that was not possible.”
Schleck ground his way across the fields between Scheulder and Ijzeren and flew down the winding, patchwork descent to Valkenburg. Gilbert came to the front with 3km to go and together the Omega riders ticked the advantage down a second at a time.
“I still had Vanendert with me, and I was confident and did not panic,” said Gilbert. “When he had built up a lead of 15 seconds, I decided to help because Vanendert was at the end of his tether.”
Schleck made the gentle left turn onto the Cauberg 750 meters from the line along a massive wall of Dutch sound. He rose out of the saddle, his bike lobbing back and forth and when he looked under his left arm 100 meters up the ramp, Schleck knew it was not to be.
“When they passed me with 500 meters to go, I lost for a moment everything,” he said.
Just as Kolobnev had a year earlier, Rodriguez fired early on the Cauberg, jumping past Schleck. Gerrans was tucked in Gilbert’s wheel, but when the Walloon exploded after Rodriguez, he was alone.
“He unleashed that acceleration that he has and it really blew everyone away,” said Gerrans. “I thought coming into the final that if I started really on his hip and right with him, when he kicked I could go with him. He really had the legs and I didn’t. … It was an incredible ride what he did today.”
Gilbert charged onto the flagging Spaniard’s wheel, like a hunter tracking wounded prey. Then, just as he did in 2010, Gilbert came over the false flat 100 meters from the line assured of the win. Four days after his demonstrative victory at De Brabanste Pijl, Gilbert shook his fist as he rolled the pedals to the line.
Gerrans charged ahead of Fuglsang, but couldn’t make the distance up to Rodriguez.
“For me this is the most important week of the season,” said Gilbert, who after winning jumped a barrier and cuddled his child. “I had planned to be at 100 percent at this particular spell and it has proved to be the case.
“I am starting to have extraordinary experiences in the one-day races, both in training and in the races themselves.”
Agence France Presse contributed to this report.