He was unstoppable this spring with a hat-trick of wins in the Ardennes Classics. He claimed his first stage win in the Tour de France, and to judge by today’s stunning victory in the Clasica San Sebastian, Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) will now continue to rule the roost right the way through to the autumn.
In San Sebastian, the Belgian Classics star powered away from the pack around four kilometres from the line on a slight rise to net his 14th win of the 2011 season.
What made it even more impressive was that apart from clearly being the strongest rider of Spain’s biggest one-day race, Gilbert was also the most heavily marked.
But it made no difference: after dragging the peloton back to the most dangerous breakaways virtually singlehandedly, when Gilbert chose his moment to attack the rest of the field was racing for second.
The real hostilities began – as was the case last year – on the second ascent of the Jaizkebel, an eight kilometre climb that rears up east of San Sebastian on the Atlantic coastline at the very end of the Pyrenees.
First to make a serious move was Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), with Gilbert counter attacking and pulling across a group of around a dozen riders in his wake, including Frank Schleck (Leopard Trek) and Sky’s Rigoberto Uran.
Despite a second attack by Sanchez and French national champion Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) over the top of the Jaizkebel, following a fast, technical descent, around 40 riders regrouped at the front.
Knowing that he would have little chance on the hilly run-in in such an unusually large group unless he went away alone, double Tour of Flanders winner Stijn Devolder (Vancansoleil) put in a gutsy solo move 25 kilometres from the line.
Plateau de Beille Tour stage winner Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) countered on the shallow but steady Arkale climb that followed, catching Devolder, but yet again a drive by Gilbert from the main pack brought the group back together by the summit.
Gilbert’s acceleration had reduced the main group to around 15, but even the Belgian national champion could not control all the attacks as they pounded towards the suburbs of San Sebastian.
So when 2009 San Sebastian winner Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) darted away eight kilometres from the line as the race dipped through an underpass and Gilbert briefly failed to counter, suddenly it almost looked promising.
There was no such luck, after Vanendert gave one big pull to bring back Barredo, Gilbert blasted away.
It was his fourth major Classic of the season after Amstel, Fleche and Liege in the spring. He even had enough time to wave at the public and glance around in the warm Spanish sunshine as he rode to the line. Second was Barredo, 12 seconds back, and third Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet.
So after an amazing first half to the season, Gilbert seems to be heading into the second half just as strong.
If he is in form this good at the World Championships, Gilbert’s chances of winning the rainbow jersey are looking good, too.
Classica San Sebastian
1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma Lotto 5-48-52
2. Carlos Barredo (Esp) Rabobank at 12 sec
3. Greg Van Avermat (Bel) BMC at 14 sec
4. Joaquin Rodriguez (Esp) Katusha
5. Dreis Devenyns (Bel) Quick Step
6. Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek
7. Haimar Zubeldia (Esp) RadioShack
8. Samuel Sanchez (Esp) Euskaltel-Euskadi
9. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Team Sky all at same time
10. Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Omega Pharma Lotto
DNF David Millar (GBr) Garmin-Cervelo
Philippe Gilbert wins San Sebastian 2011
The peloton rolls out around San Sebastian’s beautiful city beach
Philippe Gilbert, still the best one-day rider in the world