How long before they re-name the Cauberg climb in Philippe Gilbert’s honour? It has been a happy hunting ground for the Belgian cyclist – his win in the 2014 Amstel Gold Race, forged from a stunning attack on the climb, was his third in the event. He also won the 2012 World Championships with an attack on the Cauberg.
Gilbert’s latest Amstel Gold win was the result of a strong team effort from BMC, who did everything necessary to win: Michael Schar paced the peloton in the pursuit of the early escape, Greg Van Avermaet joined a strong attack in the final 40 kilometres, Samuel Sanchez attacked at the foot of the Cauberg to draw out Gilbert’s rivals, then Gilbert attacked himself, just as the race hit breaking point.
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It was immediately clear that Gilbert’s attack was the race-winning effort – the body language of the riders at the front of the race told us everything we needed to know. As the BMC rider thumped his way up the left-hand side of the road, round the inside, his three main rivals, Simon Gerrans (Orica), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma) were over on the right-hand side. When Gilbert went past, all four riders were out of the saddle. But first Kwiatkowski, then Valverde, sat down, losing momentum. Gerrans was the last to submit, but as the Australian rider rode over the painted name of 2006 winner Frank Schleck, he too sat down. Gilbert stayed standing up, still accelerating, still moving away.
Under the footbridge which crosses over the road not far before the top, Gilbert still stood. 100 metres later, he was still out of the saddle. He didn’t sit down until the road had flattened, over the top of the climb, and he didn’t look back until just before the shallow right hand bend which takes the riders onto the long finishing straight.
Without distractions, Gilbert was able to concentrate on holding the two things he needed to the finish: a high pace and a straight line. Behind him, the tell-tale fanning across the road of the next group made it clear that the race for them now was for second place. Jelle Vanendert of Lotto, who’d been caught well out of position when Gilbert attacked, caught Gerrans, Valverde and Kwiatkowski, then rode past them to finish runner-up, a handful of seconds behind Gilbert.
The race followed a more predictable pattern than last year’s, won by solo breakaway Roman Kreuziger. But that said, four of last year’s top five also came in the top five this year. Gilbert was fifth last year and winner this year, Gerrans was third both years, Kwiatkowski was fourth in 2013, fifth in 2014, and Valverde was second last year, fourth today. Moving the finish line away from the top of the Cauberg last year might have stopped the run of straightforward uphill sprints, but there’s no doubt that the strongest riders are still filling the top placings. And the strongest rider of all was the winner.
In spite of the fact that two riders from the original 11-strong early breakaway – Ag2r’s Christophe Riblon and Topsport Vlaanderen’s Preben Van Hecke – survived into the final 15 kilometres, the impression was that the more tactically important breakaway was the one which went away with 40 kilometres to go, led by Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, and followed by Greg Van Avermaet. They were also joined by Orica’s Pieter Weening, Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, and four more, occasionally picking up dropped riders from the lead group, sometimes shedding members, so that it was more a series of fluid alliances than an organised and committed octet.
The presence of Weening, working for Gerrans, and Van Avermaet, working for Gilbert, showed their respective teams’ interest in making the race. The other big riders’ teams: Movistar for Valverde, Omega Pharma for Kwiatkowski and Garmin-Sharp, for Slagter, preferred to race conservatively, controlling things from behind. (Omega Pharma initially had Zdenek Stybar in the second break, but he’d been dropped, and they reverted to Plan A). The advantage for BMC and Orica was that while Gilbert and Gerrans were stuck in the bunch, they could save domestiques for later.
The Voeckler break was all but caught with 16 kilometres to go, over the Geulhemmerberg, but as the peloton drew breath, just before the junction was made, Van Avermaet and Fuglsang pressed on, bridging up to Riblon and Van Hecke with 10 kilometres to the finish, up the Bemelerberg. They were only a hundred metres or so in front of the chasing bunch at that point, but their aim, to force other teams to chase, had been successful.
Now, Orica and BMC’s numerical superiority would count. Orica engineered a lead-out down the final descent to Valkenburg and the foot of the Cauberg that was worthy of a flat stage of the Tour de France. A line of four riders from the Australian team led down the descent, Gerrans safely nestled in third spot.
Round the corner into the Cauberg, Omega Pharma took over for Kwiatkowski. But Sanchez’s very hard attack up the first straight made Kwiatkowski, in second wheel, panic. He reacted, pulling over into the Spanish rider’s slipstream, with Gerrans, then Valverde, following suit. Sanchez pulled over and slowed once he was round the first right-hand bend, leaving Kwiatkowski at the front, probably earlier than he’d wanted.
As Kwiatkowski wondered what to do, Gerrans went for it up the right hand side of the road, with Valverde and Kwiatkowski following at a short distance. It was here that Gilbert made his attack. The Belgian was clearly moving faster than all three, and accelerating, while the others had already reached their terminal velocity. There was a hell of a battle for second place, but the television coverage of the final kilometre could have been a metaphor for its importance in the grand scheme of things. In the foreground: Philippe Gilbert, in sharp focus, riding straight as an arrow up the finishing straight; behind him, a blur of colourful shapes dancing from left to right to left across the road, a sideshow to the main event.
Gilbert rode away from three or four of the best hilly Classics riders in the world up and over the Cauberg. In doing so, he also may have left behind a more dangerous rival: the ghost of his 2012 and 2013 self. For Gilbert, this is a welcome return to form after three erratic seasons. In 2011, he was probably, pound-for-pound, the best cyclist in the world, winning Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But between the end of 2011 and now, with the exception of his brilliant World’s win in 2012, he’s been mediocre. Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next week will show us whether he’s a one-hill wonder, or back to his stunning best.
Philippe Gilbert looks to be back on the form that saw him win the World Championships in 2012
Images from the 2014 edition of Amstel Gold Race, won by Philippe Gilbert. Photos by Graham Watson
Philippe Gilbert goes clear on final climb to claim 2014 Amstel gold Race victory