Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2011 photo gallery by Graham Watson>>
Philippe Gilbert completed an incredible Ardennes treble by taking Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory, outsprinting Frank and Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) at the finish.
The trio slipped away with 21 kilometres to go on the Côte de la Roche aux Facons and quickly bridged across to the remnants of the breakaway, Jerome Pineau (Quick Step), Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team), before jettisoning them on the race's final climb.
The 27 year old had made no secret beforehand that his local Monument is his most coveted race. "For me, it was an exceptional day. It was something I dreamed about and I was able to win. It's simply something fantastic, one of the best moments of my sporting career," Gilbert said.
Pineau, Gasparotto and van Avermaet were the last survivors of a dangerous eight-man group that split off the front with 90 kilometres to go on the Haute-Levee.
"It was a delicate situation; the others saw I was isolated and attacked me. Luckily, Leopard Trek collaborated with us to bring them back," Gilbert said.
They crossed the two-minute gap to the day's main breakaway, which consisted of Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) Sebastian Delfosse (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), Tony Gallopin (Cofidis), Jesus Herrada (Movistar), Frederik Kessiakoff (Astana), Eduoard Vorganov (Katusha), Matthias Frank (BMC) and David Lelay (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Mickael Delage (FDJ) and Yannick Talabardon (Saur-Sojasun).
All the while, Omega Pharma-Lotto kept the pace high in the group and the gap steady, at the cost of several domestiques. Star helpers Jurgen Vandenbroeck and Jelle Vandendert were both spent by the time La Redoute came around.
Andy Schleck launched the key move on the Cote des Roches aux Facons, seeming to slip away smoothly with older brother Frank and Gilbert, and none of the other favourites had a look-in.
At a similar time, defending champion Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) suffered a mechanical problem, forcing him to change bikes.
Gilbert takes on the Schlecks
The three favourites cut through the rest of the break: Pineau and Gasparotto slipped off the pace, and van Avermaet was a passenger until a fierce accelaration from Gilbert halfway up the Côte de Saint-Nicholas cut him adrift. Andy Schleck was also briefly jettisoned, fighting back on the descent.
"It was a case of man against man," Gilbert explained. "When I went the second time, I
dropped Andy for a few minutes and after that, I knew we'd face the
winds on the straights. That was the ideal scenario for me."
Despite a numerical advantage - and brotherly connection - that the Belgian feared, the Schlecks didn't appear to have the strength or tactical sense to put the in-form Gilbert under pressure with attacks.
On the slightly uphill finish into Ans, the Walloon obliged the cheering locals with a fierce sprint to take his "dream race" and complete a legendary Ardennes treble.
The win makes him only the second man in history to achieve the Amstel-Fleche-Liege threesome, after Davide Rebellin in 2004, and continues to leave rivals full of respect and awe.
"By the last kilometre, I recognised that the chance was small then,
but if you don't try, you never know," Andy Schleck said. "The strongest
rider won today."
1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 255 kilometres in 6-13-18
2. Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek
3. Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek at same time
4. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Astana at 24secs
5. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Team Sky
6. Chris Sorensen (Den) Saxo Bank-Sungard
7. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team at 27secs
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 29secs
9. Bjorn Leukemans (Bel) Vacansoleil-DCM at 39secs
10. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at same time
37. Steve Cummings (Gbr) Team Sky at 2-31
89. Phillip Deignan (Irl) RadioShack at 7-35
DNF Matt Brammeier (Irl) HTC-Highroad
Philippe Gilbert launches his winning move against the Schleck brothers
Andy Schleck, winner Philippe Gilbert and Frank Schleck on the podium
Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2011 photo gallery
"Gilbert is better than me" says Merckx
Gilbert powers to Fleche win
Gilbert wins Amstel Gold Race
Philippe Gilbert: rider profile
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