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Gilbert takes consolation as Sagan leaves other rivals uneasy ahead of Ardennes

OVERIJSE, Belgium (VN) — Peter Sagan (Cannondale) left many of his rivals feeling uneasy ahead of the Ardennes classics on Wednesday. Even with the numbers today at Brabantse Pijl, none of them could respond to the “phenomenon,” though one man, world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), saw what he needed to arrive in Maastricht, Netherlands, on Sunday focused on a victory at the Amstel Gold Race.

“I could tell immediately he’d win when he shot after the leaders,” third-place finisher Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) said of Wednesday’s finale. “If Sagan comes with us to the final, there’s no way to beat him. He’s a phenomenon.”

Sagan handily dealt with two BMC Racing riders — Gilbert and Greg Van Averment — two Omega Pharma-Quick Step riders — Sylvain Chavanel and Nikolas Maes — and a handful of others, including Leukemans.

He was part of two merging escape groups 13 kilometers from Overijse’s finish line east of Brussels. He marked an attack by Chavanel and led the chase, however unwillingly, when Van Avermaet and Maes escaped ahead of the final climb. His coup de grâce: a fierce kick on the finish straight to beat his last remaining rival, Gilbert.

The final kilometers and victory left everyone outside the Cannondale camp uneasy. Sagan will start the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday and Flèche Wallonne one week from today, and gives his rivals little space for victory.

“We played our cards in the right way to beat Sagan; it was really close but it didn’t work out. Sagan is the favorite for Sunday, it is so difficult to drop him,” Van Avermaet said. “He’s not a wheelsucker. He doesn’t need to be; he always has more reserves than the rest. His team is really strong, as well. We tried to isolate him, make him ride defensively, but it’s not easy.”

Gilbert won all three Ardennes classics two years ago, only the second rider to ever sweep the hilly one-day races. He is struggling to get up to top speed ahead of the races. He decided to skip the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and use the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) stage race in Spain to better prepare for the Ardennes.

It was a hard week made worse by the weather. Gilbert decided to pull the plug early, in stage 5, to avoid digging too deeply in fierce cold and a rain/snow mix. At the time, he said, “I didn’t feel very good, so I just say to stop and try to recover and train for next week.”

Today’s result is encouraging, but Gilbert remains behind, both in the results today (second) and 2013 win count (zero compared to Sagan’s eight).

“I know how Sagan is now, he’s so relaxed, like I was two years ago,” Gilbert explained. “It’s always easier to win that way.”

As it stands now, Sagan appears the outright favorite for Amstel Gold in the way Fabian Cancellara stood alone ahead of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. Rivals know what they have to do, but no one seems to be able to do it.

Gilbert looked at the positives.

“I was happy to be up there with Greg and in second place, it’s a good step for the Ardennes. It’s good for the head,” he said. “This parcours doesn’t lie. It’s impossible to hide, so the best riders come to the front. Sagan and I rode ahead, that’s significant. I feel my form improving. Also, I could tell at times he could not ride clear of me, but just maintain his gap, which tells me that he’s not that much better than me.”

The only catch is that Sagan’s team is improving. He was outnumbered today, but Moreno Moser and Damiano Caruso, who just returned from altitude training, promise to be better Sunday. The situation leaves the Slovak’s rivals scratching their heads, wondering how to stop the “phenomenon.”