Phillipe Gilbert put in a truly extraordinary individual performace, winning the Tour of Flanders after a long solo break.
It was the 34 year old former world champion’s fourth monument win and his first since 2011 in Liege. He has been on superb form since his return to QuickStep this spring and was considered one of the favourites, but few thought we’d see a successful attack from 60km out. Riding in the Belgian champion’s kit, Gilbert lost time on the flat run-in but had time to step off his bike to celebrate a win that, in the end, was comfortable.
Behind him, it was van Avermaet and Terpstra who emerged from the chaos in Gilbert’s wake to round out the podium, with van Baarle in fourth. For van Baarle it was the best result of his career, for van Avermaet (bloodied and in ripped clothing) a brave race but a disappointing loss as favourite. Terpstra’s podium place was, for QuickStep, the painting of the lily and the gilding of refined gold, whilst it also moved him back up the list of favourites for Roubaix next week. Alexander Kristoff won the bunch sprint for fifth.
Fireworks on the Muur
Live footage for the first hour or so of racing was supposed to show just how hard the peloton work from the start, but in the sunshine, the peloton meandered out of Antwerp, happy to let a break of relatively unaccomplished riders get about a ten minute lead and showing no inclination to start riding too early. Other than the usual punctures, bottlenecks and minor chutes, we saw relatively little action for the first half of the race.
There were a few attempts to get lieutenants off the front of the field from the Leberg onward, but the blue touch paper was well and truly lit over the Muur. Most pundits, and van Avermaet, thought the legendary slope might be too early in the race to have an influence. The story of this classics season, though, has been the story of long attacks staying clear, and sure enough, 14 decent riders were led clear by Sky and Quickstep on the approach to the Chapel. Boonen, Gilbert, Kristoff and Vanmarcke were among those who made the selection, but Sagan and Van Avermaet did not, and the chase group got a minute clear of the peloton on the road back to the Pottelberg.
Gilbert goes clear, Vanmarcke goes down
BMC and Orica (working for Durbridge) took on the bulk of the chasing responsibilities, as they were among the few major teams who missed the break and narrowed the gap. Boonen worked hard at the front on the lead group, causing most of Belgium to contemplate a fairy-tale ending, and he and Trentin softened the field for Gilbert who attacked hard over the Kwaremont and went clear on his own.
Sep Vanmarcke’s luck didn’t improve and he fell hard on a descent as his rear wheel was caught between concrete slabs. He remounted his bike but had dropped out of the race and caused Luke Rowe, who couldn’t ride around his stricken bike, to lose some time. Van Avermaet and Sagan rejoined the main group which swelled significantly before the Koppenberg, but Gilbert’s lead was considerable and swelled to over a minute.
More favourites eliminated from contention
The next twenty or thirty kilometres were chaotic, and the next flashpoint was the Taaienberg, the most ironic location imaginable for Boonen to suffer a mechanical and a slow bike change that removed him from contention. At the other end of the chase group, Sagan attacked and drew Naesen and Van Avermaet clear, with Offredo and Trentin joining them, catching Felline and Van Baarle who had been hovering off the front.
On the final passage of the Kwaremont, Sagan was leading Van Avermaet clear of the group in a last attempt to catch Gilbert, when he caught a wheel in an advertisting hoarding riding in the gutter and fell, bring Naesen and Van Avermaet down with him. For Naesen and Sagan, it was the end of their race. Van Avermaet was able to remount quickly and was part of a trio who chased Gilbert valiantly but couldn’t close the gap. The unanswerable question is whether they’d have closed the gap if Naesen and Sagan had been able to help.
Rivera a tiny force of nature
In the women’s race, a few breaks were brought back together in the closing kilometres, and a group of around twenty hit the finish together, with Coryn Rivera narrowly winning the sprint. The diminutive rider picked up the biggest win of her career to date, following a similar victory at the Alfredo Binda in a breakthrough season. It was hard not to be thrilled for her as she yelled into her radio, fell to the floor in tears and joy. Narrowly beaten were Gracie Elvin and Chantal Blaak.