VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — As he slipped on the rainbow jersey amongst the podium kisses and champagne, it seemed in hindsight all but inevitable that Philippe Gilbert was going to win the world road title on Sunday.
But things were as clear as mud as a reduced group of 43 riders turned onto the final assault of the Cauberg with less than 5km to go in the intense, thrilling 269km elite men’s road race.
Spain was there en masse, with its five aces still in its pocket, so were the Australians. Germany was riding well for John Degenkolb and freelancers such as Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway) and Peter Sagan (Slovakia) were ready to pounce.
Midway up the Cauberg, the Gilbert that everyone knew in 2011 but that had all but disappeared in 2012 was back. He jumped off the wheel of Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), punched the accelerator and sprung clear so quickly and so violently it knocked Spain completely off its game.
Riding through a sea of orange-clad Dutch fans, Gilbert churned a season of disappointment into his pedals to take the most important victory of his career.
Looking back with 400 meters to go, Gilbert knew he had it in the bag. World champion, at long last.
“It was a great moment coming toward the finish line,” Gilbert said. “I knew it was for me and it was just so amazing to cross the line in first place. It’s been my dream for a long time.”
Gilbert’s winning ride Sunday put a dream end to what was a month ago in danger of becoming a nightmare season.
Going into the Vuelta a España in August, Gilbert was winless for the first time since his rookie season a decade ago. The critics were hemming and hawing that Gilbert had gone soft after signing a three-year, multi-milllion-euro contract with BMC Racing. Gilbert the eternal attacker, the only man to win all three Ardennes classics and the warm-up Brabantse Pijl in a single season, had become a coaster.
But digging deeper, Gilbert never quit attacking; it was just that his spurts were not quite as potent as they had been, especially when compared to his hyper-successful 2011 season, which ended with 18 wins, a sweep of the Ardennes classics, the number one WorldTour ranking and the Velo magazine International Rider of the Year award.
Gilbert stalled in the spring classics, fell short in the Olympic Games and had all the pressure to win on Sunday, less than 50km from his childhood home in Verviers, Belgium. Cool as a cucumber, Gilbert delivered.
“I didn’t have good luck this season, but I kept fighting,” he said. “I had good form at the Olympics, but I had nothing to show for it. I went to the Vuelta and won two stages on finales that were similar to the Cauberg. I made tests there and I took a lot of confidence out of the Vuelta for this race.”
Gilbert has been chasing the world title over the past half-decade. On courses that were well suited for him – at Mendrisio in 2009 and Geelong in 2010 – Gilbert attacked in vain. The rainbow jersey eluded him despite having won just about every prize in cycling for the puncheurs.
“I was thinking about (the Australian worlds) today when I was heading toward the final climb up the Cauberg,” he said. “I was thinking about that disappointment, but defeats also make you stronger.”
Belgium played it tactically smart throughout the race. They missed an early move, but late put three riders into a counter-attack. Then the blue jerseys had the muscle to pull at the front and protect Gilbert and co-captain Tom Boonen for the finale. The pace was so high over the final kilometers, only Andrew Talansky and Ian Stannard dared to try and escape on the final time up the Bemelerberg.
Boonen, the 2005 world champion and winner of all four major cobbled classics this spring, was the team’s ace in the hole if the finale came down to a sprint, but Gilbert wasn’t going to let the rainbow jersey slip through his hands without a fight. He’d won at Amstel Gold Race here twice before.
“I know I won’t have opportunities like this many times in my career,” he said. “I really made the perfect ride up the Cauberg. I think I will go back and watch it 10 times over.”
Italy ramped up the action, with Luca Paolini surging for Nibali, but Gilbert knew the Cauberg like the back of his hand. He surged clear midway up the climb, quickly opened a gap, and poured it on. He glanced back, sensed hesitation among his pursuers, and a brisk tailwind pushed him home.
“I don’t know what this jersey means yet. I will feel the difference next Thursday at Piemonte,” said Gilbert, referring to when he will make his race debut in the rainbow. “It will be a great moment for me.”
Gilbert’s win put an exclamation point on a wild week of racing across the Dutch hills of the Limburg. With tens of thousands of Belgian fans pouring over from nearby Wallonne, it almost felt like home for Gilbert. More than that even, the win gave Gilbert the result he so badly desired after a winless spring campaign. No man in today’s peloton knows the feeling of winning on the Cauberg as well as Gilbert and when he finally broke the code with his Vuelta wins just weeks earlier, the Belgian’s triumph in Limburg was almost inevitable.