HUY, Belgium (VN) – The Walloon fans of his home region carried Philippe Gilbert up the über-steep Mur de Huy Wednesday as he ran away with his third win in a row. The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider came onto the steepest section of the Mur at the front of the peloton and burst away from his rivals 400 meters from the line at La Flèche Wallonne.
In a replay of Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) couldn’t match the Belgian’s acceleration, but clawed back for second at three seconds, two ticks ahead of Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
“It’s a huge pleasure, a bit of a surprise because I’ve suffered a lot in the past on the Mur de Huy,” said Gilbert. “I had enough of an advantage to enjoy the end. It was something incredible today.”
Gilbert said last week that he could not win on the ramps of the Mur. The energy of tens of thousands of fans was frenetic when Gilbert proved himself wrong on the finish climb that often sees the pure climbers excel.
With wins already this year at March’s Montepaschi Strade Bianchi, as well as De Brabanste Pijl and Amstel Gold race in the last seven days, Gilbert hasn’t been defeated in a hilly one-day race this season. Liège-Bastogne-Liège looms on Sunday and is now the only hilly classic the 28-year-old hasn’t won.
“Of course if I win on Sunday at Liège; it would be fantastic, but it’s still too far away,” he said. “I don’t want to think about that too much.”
The “Wallonne Arrow” started with a 70-kilometer, rolling run-in to Huy from the start at the stadium in Charleroi.
Maciej Paterski (Liquigas-Cannondale) started the action just two kilometers from the zero k mark on the outskirts of town. Maxime Vantomme represented Rodriguez in the break, joining Paterski quickly with Matti Helminem (Landbouwkrediet) and Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercatobel).
The peloton was satisfied with the move and the gap quickly went north of ten minutes. By the time they reached the top of the 1.3-kilometer Mur the first time, the break held an advantage of just under 16 minutes. It would fall for the rest of the day over the saw blade circuit near town.
Late break angers Gilbert
The break arrived to the Mur intact for their penultimate ascent. Helminem was the first to falter, finding his legs emptied as he turned left onto the steepest part of the wall (over 20 percent gradient). Behind him, the peloton ebbed from five-wide at the entrance to the climb to a long, narrow head.
Nicki Sorensen led the bunch over the climb in his bright red Danish champion’s jersey, Contador in his wheel. Once atop the climb, Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) jumped, pulling out Thomas Lövkvist (Team Sky) and Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad). Katusha’s Alexadr Kolobnev marked the moved and Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) quickly bridged across with Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar).
The six chasers rolled through the Walloon countryside much more smoothly than the course profile would indicate. Kolobnev enjoyed the ride at the back until they pulled the three survivors of the break in 21 kilometers from the finish. The peloton was not far behind, however, Omega Pharma working with four riders to Leopard-Trek and Garmin-Cervélo’s one.
Rabobank added two riders to the fire when the gap came under 20 seconds. Their leader Robert Gesink said he felt good coming into Huy, but suffered on the climb. “That is the way it should be. We made the deal to put the guys who that they could do well in the front,” he said. “Bram can wait and come 30th himself maybe, but it’s better to go flat-out and put the other guys in the best position.”
Gilbert said his team was meant to have a rider in the move to ease their burden, but that didn’t happen. “I talked with Vino (Alexander Vinokourov) about taking over at 10 kilometers, but didn’t happen because of the break,” said Gilbert. “I was angry and perhaps that gave me extra strength.”
Cooperation up front began to dissolve 14 kilometers from the finish and when Lövkvist saw a gap behind him on the descent to the base of the Côte d’Ereffe, he floored the pedal. The Swede and Kiryienka sprung free and took 19 seconds onto the penultimate 2.1-kilometer, 5.9-percent shoulder of the Ereffe.
“I looked behind me and decided I needed to go,” he said. “But they were riding hard behind, so it was hard to increase the gap.”
Omega Pharma’s work paid off when the other break riders returned to the pack.
“Some people wanted to skip pulls and when Lövkvist and Kiryenka got away and we just came back,” said Van Garderen. “I was pretty done after that.”
Up front, Lövkvist gritted his teeth, pulling his Movistar companion to the top of the penultimate climb. Danilo Di Luca laid his cards out for Rodriguez and had a dig at the front of the peloton before an HTC rider came around the Italian and took the peloton through the tight left hand corner at the summit, the leaders in sight.
With the catch made just outside the town’s center, Jerome Pineau (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) hit out. The doomed late escapees bent low to their bars as they pushed hard through the streets of Huy. Andy Schleck sat at the back of the peloton, but Leopard chased hard with Maxime Momfort. The battle for positioning crescendoed past the bridge over the Meuse River and Bram Tankink (for Robert Gesink), Christian Knees (for Simon Gerrans) and Kolobnev (for Rodriguez) each surged toward the opening of the final climb.
When they turned right and rolled over the first painting of “Huy” on the most potent climb of the Ardennes classics, Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin), Rodriguez and Gilbert took to the front, sucking up the breakaway. The Mur is a tactical monster, requiring a perfectly timed effort to escape on the steep slopes without going too early.
Gilbert hesitated for only a moment, however, half-wheeling Le Mevel on the right side of the road. The newest king of the classics turned on the gas and struck the match 400 meters from the finish, letting off a fierce acceleration just beyond the steepest section of the climb.
“I had no doubt when I made that attack,” said Gilbert. “I made the best of my position. I saw that on the top, Contador and Rodriguez were badly placed and I made the best of it.”
Vandevelde slowed near the barriers as the volume atop the Mur went to 10. Fans screamed Gilbert’s name and bells rang as he rose onto the finish straight, eight lengths clear of Rodriguez. The Spaniard, who many picked as the top favorite, made time on the mellowing road atop the Mur, but in the end, Gilbert was too strong.
As he approached the finish, Gilbert waved his right hand, urging the crowd for more volume and the scene was deafening by the time he locked in his third win in a week. Sanchez and Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) rose through the pack to follow in for third and fourth.