Gilbert solidifies his status as a cycling legend
The true greats in cycling don’t just win the sport’s biggest races – they win them in style.
Take Fabian Cancellara at the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, who probably would have won whenever he opted to attack, but did so with over 50km to go. Or Tom Boonen at the same race two years later, who attacked from a similar distance, as if saying to Cancellara: ‘anything you can do, I can do better’.
On Sunday, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) produced his masterpiece at the 2017 Tour of Flanders, the best win in a career that has included all the Ardennes Classics, two Il Lombardia titles, multiple Grand Tour stages and a World Championships. Not to mention a photo-friendly celebration, lifting his bike above his head while dressed in the iconic Belgian champion’s jersey.
His performance even trumps Cancellara’s and Boonen’s – the route of the Ronde is not quite so accommodating to long-range attacks, yet Gilbert committed to going all-in once he’d realised no-one could match his pace on the second climb of the Oude Kwaremont 55km from the finish, demonstrating unbelievable power for a 34-year-old we’d all assumed was past his peak.
In historic league table, he now joins the likes of Jan Raas, Erik Zabel and Louison Bobet to become just the 30th rider to have won four Monuments, and an even more exclusive group of just four riders (himself, Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy and Moreno Argentin) to have won each of the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Il Lombardia and the World Championships.
Fortune favours the brave
Contributing to the drama of this extraordinary edition of the Tour of Flanders was a succession of jaw-dropping crashes and mechanicals, each playing a crucial role in the how the race unfolded.
Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) was cruelly denied a fairy-tale ending when a puncture befell him on his favourite climb, the Taaienberg; a crash took out major contenders Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) and Luke Rowe (Sky) after they’d engineered themselves into great positions; and, most startling of all, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) all fell just as they were starting to chase down Gilbert in earnest.
That last crash was the moment the pendulum swing firmly in his favour, which begs the question – would Gilbert have won if everyone else had stayed upright? Perhaps not, given how much his lead fell in the final run-in to the line even without the presence of Sagan and Naesen.
But that should not take the sheen off Gilbert’s victory. One of the rewards of attempting to win the hard way with a long-range solo move is the advantage of not having to ride in congested groups, where the presence of other riders makes the risk of crashing is so much higher. Gilbert was bold and brave; and, as the saying goes, fortune favoured him.
The Kapelmuur was unexpectedly influential
Like a hero in a story exiled to a faraway kingdom, it didn’t matter how far from the finish the organisers positioned the Muur – it still managed to have the final say on how the story of the 2017 Tour of Flanders unfolded.
Any increase in pace on its ferociously steep slopes was going to cause a selection, and indeed a group of 14 riders slipped off the front when Quick-Step Floors took to the front through Gilbert and Tom Boonen.
There were enough riders with an interest in distancing the peloton – which included pre-race favourites Sagan and Van Avermaet – for the group to work coherently together, and thus a desperate pursuit between the two groups ensued.
The chasing group eventually made the catch just after the first ascent of the Paterberg, nearly 50km later, but the damage had already been done. Gilbert had already burst out up in front, and was soloing his way to victory.
Sagan and Van Avermaet are left disappointed
Having starred for so much of the spring, hot favourites Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet both missed out on the big one.
Even after they’d caught up to the group that had escaped on the Muur, disaster struck when Sagan was upended while riding close to the barriers on the final climb of the Oude Kwaremont, taking Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen with him.
For Van Avermaet it was another misfortune in a race that he so dearly wants to win but cannot quite get right – he recovered admirably to finish second, but that result means he’s now finished on the podium three times here without winning.
For Sagan, the incident was more debilitating, and he remounted only to finish down in 27th. The Slovakian generally never crashes, usually swerving his way out of any hairy situations with his extraordinary bike-handling skills. It was a shock to see him fall – perhaps the gravity and tension of the Ronde was too much even for a rider as calm and measured as he.
Welcome inclusion of women’s race coverage
Heeding calls that had gone ignored earlier this spring, the host broadcasters took time during the men’s Tour of Flanders to cut to the thrilling finale of the women’s race.
In stark contrast to the men’s race – demonstrating what a diverse set of circumstances can be thrown up by the Ronde – everything boiled down to a large group sprint of 17 riders, despite many committed attacks from rouleurs as powerful as Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High 5), Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans), Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott).
Twenty-four-year old American Coryn Rivera (Sunweb) took the win, continuing a break-through spring during which she has also triumphed at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Her finishing kick was too much for Chantal Blaak, who had opened the sprint after a lead-out from the several Boels Dolmans riders still in the lead group, while Gracie Elvin (Orica-Scott) had to settle for second after making her move just a little too late.